Though they live just blocks from each other, the two artists didn’t know each other. Until this week, when they’ll finally meet up — in Dubai.
By chance, Andrew Lyght, a Guyana-born artist whose home and studio are located in a former mule barn in Ponckhockie, and Valerie Piraino, who left Brooklyn a year ago with her husband, Drew Piraino, to move into a house in Connelly, are two of the four artists represented in “A Fast, Moving Sky,” an exhibition at The Third Line gallery in Dubai that opens May 24.The guest curator, Dexter Wimberly, is the executive director at Aljira-A Center for Contemporary Art, based in Newark, which is not nearly as far away as the United Arab Emirates and so partly explains the connection.
As does the fact that the work and lives of both artists have spanned continents and cultures, which is an important theme of the show. Lyght is showing 13 new wall installation pieces, which he calls “drawing structures.” Each consists of a painted plywood rectangle, in some cases bent, that protrudes from the solid, industrial-style wall frame constructed of oak and metal. Lyght lived in Montreal after leaving Guyana, where he received the country’s top artist awards while still a teenager, before moving to New York City in 1977. He worked and lived in Europe after winning two prestigious grants before settling in Kingston in 2010.
Wimberly contacted Lyght after visiting his solo show at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz, which was held last summer. Wimberly “has a very good eye. He is trying to push the limits and boundaries in art and make art global,” said Lyght, noting that “A Fast, Moving Sky” is dedicated to artists from the African Diaspora.
Lyght said the frames of the six works in the exhibition relate to the post-and-lintel structure of a window (in Guyana Lyght worked in carpentry), openings “where you can poke your head out into space.” The plywood surfaces, which are painted in a single color — earthy greens, blue, red or orange — and inscribed with line drawings inspired by ancient indigenous petroglyphs of Guyana, have a dynamic tension with the frame: they suggest movement, as if caught or in the process of escaping, like errant butterflies, wafting petals or sailing kites, the immobile frame. (Lyght built kites as a child, which were a signature motif in the large-scale assemblages he hung from public atriums in New York City in the 1980s and ’90s).
In a statement, Lyght noted that the seascape of Guyana, the distant horizon where ocean and sky meet, inspired his deconstruction of the picture plane, frame and compositional elements “to better understand and communicate the dynamic nature of pictorial space.” Space and the built environment are in a conversation, in the most pared-down terms: the rectangular planes are cut out along one edge in a decorative pattern, evoking “the tops of buildings in classical architecture,” perhaps a reference to the streetscapes in Rome, where Lyght resided for several months.
The lack of fixed boundaries also relates to the theme of displacement, freedom and movement evoked in the show’s title, “A Fast, Moving Sky.” The exhibition catalog describes the show’s artists as “cultural hybrids whose works exemplify the complexity of defining this phenomenon [of the African Diaspora] aesthetically as well as geographically. A Fast, Moving Sky illustrates how ideas, aesthetics and people are constantly in flux.”
Piraino will be exhibiting 13 small sculptures of fruit, which were inspired by the papayas she ate for breakfast as a child living in Africa. Carved from layers of polystyrene covered with black epoxy clay and resin, which may be sanded or further shaped by a mold of a different fruit, the forms, some of which are also accented with gilt or gold paint, are displayed on a tabletop or hung from twine nets from the wall. (After she “got bored” from the tabletop displays of the first works in the series, Piraino had the thought “oh yeah fruit hangs … I started thinking about the viewing space compared to the environmental space, where fruit comes from,” she said.)
The fruits also are about “recognizing black skin in a very direct way … they’re a tiny glimpse into our everyday life living overseas that also follow the trajectory of imperialism and colonialism,” said Piraino, noting that the papaya actually originates in the Caribbean.
She began making the pieces in 2014, while she was living in Brooklyn and had become exhausted by the challenges of making large installations in a city where the hustle for space and money is constant. “I didn’t have the capacity to store the works, so I’d make these big freestanding walls and then throw them away. It was so wasteful. I felt this vague desire to make work about Africa and get back to my starting point, that’s precise and easy to make and install.”
Piraino was born in Rwanda and spent her early childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo and three other African countries, where her father, who was American (her mother is Rwandan and worked as a designer and seamstress), worked in international relief efforts and development before moving to Arizona. The family then moved to Baltimore, where Piraino attended the Maryland Institute of Art. She spent seven months in Rwanda, where much of her family had been killed in the genocide, on a travel scholarship. The stay inspired her thesis project, which consisted of a trough of rusted metal into which she placed simple forms of houses made out of salt, arranged in a cross-like formation; after pouring water into the trough, the houses gradually dissolved and the metal became stained, like blood. “I’m interested in materials as metaphors,” Piraino said.
She moved to New York in 2005 and obtained her MFA from Columbia University. While an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, she inherited family slides, letters and artifacts from her deceased grandmother and began constructing mid-20th-century domestic environments out of freestanding walls, much like theater flats, that embodied family narratives.
Piraino has shown her work in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Johannesburg. In Connelly, being able to “take my time to set up my studio, to have that agency to make my own decisions, is wonderful,” she said. “I can go deeper with the work. I can spend a lot more time looking at my art and be very intentional.”
Obviously, moving upstate hasn’t crimped the opportunities for either Piraino or Lyght. Piraino, who participated in an international gathering of artists in Nairobi a few months ago and just installed a work that was commissioned through the Art in Embassies program at the embassy in Swaziland, is currently working on a commission for the Socrates Sculpture Park, in Long Island City. It’s her first large-scale, public work and she hopes to work with a foundry for the fabrication.
Lyght, whose work has been collected by the Centre Georges Pompidou, Studio Museum of Harlem, World Bank Program, Goldman Sachs, and other prestigious institutions and private entities, also will be showing in the city. He’ll be exhibiting two pieces at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute in a show entitled “Liminal Space,” featuring artists from Guyana who’ve mostly resettled in large metropolitan areas in the U.S. The show opens June 1 and runs through Oct. 26.
Both Lyght and Piraino will attend the opening in Dubai on May 24 and give an artist’s talk. They’ll also attend a private dinner with Wimberley and another gallery curator and the two other artists in the show, Rushern Baker IV, who lives in Prince George County, Maryland, and Leonardo Benzant, a Dominican-American residing in Texas. Just in case you’re in Dubai, the show is up through July 25.