Donelle Woolford Number 1 Painting 2006 wood, screws, glue, latex paint 27″ x 21″
Posted in ArtReview magazine on 19 March 2008
Issue 20, March 2008
Wallspace, New York
10 January – 16 February
By Tyler Coburn
“Donelle Woolford, a young Harlem-based African-American artist, has made an understated New York solo debut at Wallspace. Exhibiting a level of art-historical savvy well beyond her twenty-seven years, Woolford takes a page from Marcel Broodthaers, with an installation including gigantic tropical plants, a seating area and a copy of Brian O’Doherty’s Studio and Cube: On the Relationship Between Where Art Is Made and Where Art Is Displayed (2008). She is a cubist painter by name, though this legacy takes a somewhat counterintuitive route through her practice, manifesting as assemblages of wood scraps sourced from Woolford’s studio (in a lumber reclamation factory in Connecticut) and backed by corrugated cardboard. These works assume the character of ‘bulky stage props’, as the artist puts it in one her many essays, and enact a performative, identity-based appropriation of Cubism – a movement, Woolford contends, which was purloined from her African ancestors.
Assessing the extent to which Woolford succeeds in her project requires one additional piece of information: she is the construction of white, middle-aged American artist Joe Scanlan. This fact isn’t withheld but rather intimated by the women Scanlan hires to play Woolford at exhibition openings, and embedded in the biography and secondary material he has assembled around her. In a mock essay that could best be described as an idealised meeting of minds, Ralph Ellison and Broodthaers’s widow, Maria Gilissen, call Woolford ‘an African American artist for the 21st century’, yet her practice owes little allegiance to a recent generation of ‘postblack’ artists (so-titled by Thelma Golden), whose practices resist stringently race-based interpretation. If anything, Woolford’s persona inclines back towards – and sends up – a mode of 1990s production, when biography was, at best, an asset; at worst, a limit to a minority artist’s career.
What’s clever about Scanlan’s project is its way of acknowledging the politics of the West’s professed multiculturalism, in that his protagonist’s historical revisionism can, in a sense, best be enacted by someone who speaks from within the boundaries of her identity group: hence the need for Woolford’s creation. The fact that the artist hired women as partial collaborators in his tale doesn’t absolve it of its potentially button-pushing content, but may, in any case, be its most compelling dimension, without which Woolford’s profitably ‘insincere practice and deadpan writings on race and history might seem less theatrically incisive, and more in poor taste. It’s evident that race isn’t Scanlan’s sole focus, and that Woolford’s analysis of high-art conservatism runs parallel to those of some of his other projects, which also entail collaborative infiltrations of the canon’s hallowed halls. Yet Woolford will remain among his least resolved works (perhaps constructively so), as the power relations inherent in her invention remain provocative, however thoughtfully they are staged and critiqued.”
Joe Scanlan’s website: