Sitting hunched over in a wooden table chair in front of a bare white wall, the artist Michaela Pilar Brown is nude. But her uncovered body, half of which is shrouded by a shadow, isnt where the eye rests in the portrait. The eye finds its way to the miniature house, the focal point of the image, that Brown cradles in her hand.
Browns eyes, accentuated by eyelash extensions, are concentrated on the house, as if shes trying to peer inside. The portrait, judiciously titled Death Watch, represents the reason why Brown, a provocative and at times confrontational artist, lives in the state: she moved to Winnsboro in Fairfield County to watch her father die.
This entire show, in some regard, is autobiographical, Brown said of her solo exhibition, Wit(her) Goes My Heart, which opens Tuesday at the Goodall Gallery in Columbia Colleges Spears Center for the Arts.
Much of the work was created this spring while Brown completed a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. The nudity in Death Watch suggests Brown is being exposed to (or for) something, but what?
For me, in visual images clothes are loaded with meaning, said Brown, who rocks a bald head with fashionable aplomb. She wants the bare essence included in the discussion of her work.
A lot of this work is performance based, and the costume is the stuff that Im taking on, the ideas, she continued. Im really interested also in how the black body moves through this space, particularly the black female body.
Brown said the image of her exposed breasts, which appear in three of the more than 20 pieces in the exhibition that includes photography, sculpture and installation, caused concern for select Columbia College administrators. But Wit(her) Goes My Heart, is devoid of images like the one that greets visitors to Browns homepage. In the image, Brown, who is wearing a blond wig, is bound with rope. Brown referred to the work that will be exhibited at Columbia College as subtle.
This show is actually very conservative, Brown, 42, said.
Still, Brown, who has had pieces pulled from shows before, had to have images approved. Last year, while serving as the Harvey B. Gantt Artist-in-Residence at the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, Brown had to remove an image that contained a penis. (In Red Social: Portraits of Collaboration by Alejandro Garcia-Lemos, the previous Goodall Gallery exhibition, one of Garcia-Lemos painted drawings was upholstered with a cutout of a naked man.)
It really is beyond Columbia College, said Brown, who is appreciative of the opportunity to show at Goodall. This issue is South Carolina, in that every venue you go into theres this concern of what you present. How polite is it? Whats it showing? Theres a reluctance to talk about race, and these are all things I confront in my work.
Race, religion and sometimes sexuality. Brown became a talked-about artist in the art scene through her work that examined the relationship between homosexuals and the black church. The Doors of the Church are Open, seen at the Valentines Day exhibition Whats Love in 2011, shows naked black man with his head covered by a model church.
My religious experience growing up was varied, said Brown, who was born in Bangor, Maine, but grew up in Denver, Colo.
She was raised by a Baptist mother and Methodist father. But Brown, the youngest of four children, said an older brother, who is a Jehovahs Witness, played a significant role in her upbringing. The work critical of the black church was created in 2010, around the time that Eddie Long, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, became embroiled in a sex scandal. Four men filed lawsuits against Long, who has denounced homosexuality, citing sexual misconduct. The lawsuits were settled out of court.
I just think that theres a level of hypocrisy within the black church that speaks to a larger issue of civil rights, Brown said. How can we deny someone their basic civil rights, particularly around this conversation related to gay marriage?
If we deny this man civil rights, how is it that that same argument wont used against you? The same homophobia allowed HIV to run rampant through our communities because we wouldnt talk about it in the black church, the one place where we had an audience and could get the word out.
Brown, who works in McKissick Museums curatorial department, studied sculpture and art history at Howard University. She first came to South Carolina in 2001 and stayed for a year.
Her father, who was born and raised on the land he retired on, was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease. In 2003, Brown came back when her fathers disease became too much for her mother to manage.
In a way, it was like a homecoming for Brown.
I used to come here in the summers as a child and we would say, Were going home, she said.
Home can be hard to define, Brown added.
For people who are descendants of slaves without a real ethnic link to land, home becomes the homestead wherever you can trace your ancestry back the furthest, she continued. This is home for us. So this entire body of work is about this little house.
The house her grandfather built in the 20s, the one that is featured prominently in the exhibition, the one that Brown is peering into in Death Watch. For this work, she mined her earliest memories of the house and drew and painted the house over and over again.
Until it kind of became its simplest form, she said. And its really about all of those things that play into the idea of home. What is home? Is it a repository for your memories? Is it a physical place? And because its a physical place, its ever-changing, its evolving.
Her father died in 2007.
Brown, who worked for two years as a curator at the Fairfield County Museum, intended to move back to D.C. before she met her current boyfriend, Darion McCloud, an actor and a dynamic artist himself.
I felt like I had never given Columbia a chance, and my mothers older, I wasnt anxious to leave, she said.
The multi-level Goodall Gallery is a challenging space to fill, but Brown seems up to the task with her varied pieces. Bone Deep and Blood Thick, an approximately 17-foot installation, will be in the center of the gallery. Country Preacher features a grey fox skull with a gold tooth biting down on a miniature church.
In Village, an image set against a dark template, a house, seemingly with the lights on, sits on Browns shoulders as if on a hill. Her face is dusted with a white substance that could be flour or chalk. Its actually kaolin, a soft white clay. Brown, who is fascinated with the changing body, has worked with black face. In pieces like Village, shes, in her words, whiting up.
I think its important for you to force the viewer to confront your ideas, Brown, who will give a gallery talk Nov. 8, said. So what Im trying to do with this show is really have a more sequential narrative, so that all of the pieces play into the narrative.
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.