Jamel Robinson and Hannah Cullen after their presentation of ELLA, 2019

During Armory Week, Jamel Robinson had an exhibition of paintings and collaborative performance at STAYNovo Arts. This ambitious, self-taught artist has been practicing for just over five years and in this instance worked with performer Hannah Cullen for a vocal, movement-based and painted work titled, ELLA. Engaging with the conceptual fragments of memory, seasons of life, and domestic interiors, the work gave a visual and audible resonance to what it means to lose someone to dementia. Robinson spent many years living with his grandmother who is now 92-years-old, in Harlem. Now, she’s been inflicted with the illness that results in the loss of one’s past –memories become frozen, only accessible in photo albums and sometimes even then unrecognizable. For the presentation of ELLA, the duo worked together while separate. Cullen moved around the gallery igniting a painting of the same name, twirling and draping it across and over her body, as Robinson read a poem at times raising his voice to nearly a scream as his pre-emptive grief was made tangible for all in attendance.

In excerpt: 
the colors you are:
crystal clear 

I forget who I am 
who we are
who you always wanted me to be

I am

and still

I do not have the courage
to tell you
I’ve let you go
even though you’re still here

a candle in the sunlight
of my spotted mind 

pieces of myself 
in your smile 

ELLA the performative gesture, Jamel Robinson and Hannah Cullen, 2019

As Robinson’s voice permeated the gallery, Cullen moved rhythmically, but almost as if to her own song, or her own story. The two seemed to be connected by an invisible spring line; her the ship at sea, him the dock attached to shore. Functioning both as an artwork and a living tribute, it was a rare, albeit special, occurrence to see a painting come off the gallery wall to truly complete its intention. There was a casual and sweet presence exuded by both artists, each in dressed in comfortable black clothing, her in white tennis shoes. The painted fabric made subtle whooshing sounds as it followed her body into the air, then onto to the gallery floor again. Painted in muted tones of blue, red, green, yellow, white and black, the weighted material hissed and crackled, folding and bending, becoming a blanket, a jacket, a cape –an artwork meant to be touched. Robinson, who makes work that is highly tactile, was influenced by Oscar Murillo and a series of paintings the artist had in The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, organized by Laura Hoptman, Curator and Margaret Ewing, Assistant Curator at the MoMA from late 2014 through April 2015. The exhibition, perhaps one of the best that MoMA has done in the last several years, was not only formative in assigning importance to contemporary painting, but also didactic, as thousands of visitors learned that painting doesn’t always need to look or function in a particular way.

ELLA the performative gesture, Jamel Robinson and Hannah Cullen, 2019

The performance kicked off a short-run exhibition which was on view from March 11 through 15 at STAYNovo Arts a pop-up gallery featuring a variety of Robinson’s dimensional paintings, some framed others not. A principal work, ELLA remained on view nailed to the wall as it was during the final moments of the performance, when Robinson had completed his prose and crumpled the canvas into a ball. Rather than seeing the gesture as a finale or similar to how someone might treat a piece of discarded paper, his action felt almost precious. Unlike the familial bond between a grandchild and grandparent, the work is predisposed to transform. While circumstances change, love never does. The painting is a signifier, a body meant to evolve, soften and sag over time. Our bodies are imperfect but the art we make can represent a perfect feeling or a perfect moment. Art is a bridge between generations, a portal through space, and a memory, not likely to fade away.

Resulting in smiles and recognition throughout the faces of those present, this overheard-quote functioned for me, as a reminder of how art can be appreciated by all those open to being present, “Man, I don’t understand it, but I like it.”

Sending love to you ELLA and all the other grandmothers out there.


For more on Jamel Robinson and Hannah Cullen, visit: @iamjamelrobinson and @cullenandthem respectively.

Katy Diamond Hamer is the founding editor of Eyes Towards the Dove and a freelance writer with a focus on contemporary art and culture. For more of her art adventures visit: @katyhamer