A sprinkling of light on the canvas is an increasingly radical act
In 1975, Howardena Pindell, a zealous young Yale graduate from Philadelphia living in New York, decided to add glitter to her abstract paintings. Inspired by the latex works of the sculptor Eva Hesse, Pindell “loved the way glitter created texture on the surface – caught the shifting typography of light”, as the 79-year-old artist says from her studio in New York. Chintzy, cheerful and accessible, glitter evokes disco balls and dancefloors, cabaret costumes and cheap children’s craft. Nearly 50 years on from Pindell’s first efforts, many artists are drawn to its optical potential – but its patina of luxury and prosperity can also serve as a way of asking more difficult questions.
Last summer, an extensive exhibition of Pindell’s works – which also incorporate perfume, talc and sequins – at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, showed exactly how dazzling, and avant-garde, her use of glitter has been. But Pindell has always been a pioneer. A member of a co-op of feminists who founded the legendary AIR gallery at 97 Wooster Street in 1972 (now housed in the Dumbo neighbourhood of Brooklyn), she was one of the women who set about shaking up New York City’s male-dominated art scene. In the 1970s, she worked at MoMA, becoming the first black female curator on staff before resigning in 1979 in protest against a discriminatory exhibition. After a car accident damaged her memory, she turned to painting full-time. Introducing glitter “may have been a reaction to the fabricated work and minimalism” popular at the time, she muses. Glitter represented beauty, the touch of the human hand, and it emanated light.
Yet Pindell soon discovered that all that glitters doesn’t turn to gold. Her works were broadly dismissed, with critics unwilling to engage with either the themes she addressed or the medium she used. Her use of glitter was widely misunderstood, with one newspaper critic writing that he would like to have sex under her paintings. By the 1980s Pindell moved away from glitter, only returning to the material in the 2000s. One of the derided glitter works from the late 1970s, a vanilla-hued giant measuring about seven by 8.5 feet, Untitled #24, sold for $1,134,000 at auction at Christie’s in May this year – a record figure for a work by the artist. “Isn’t that crazy?” Pindell laughs.
For a new generation, glitter – true to its indelible form – isn’t going away either. From Mickalene Thomas’s bedazzling, sought-after paintings of female figures to the ornate, glitzy tapestries of Ebony G Patterson, it has become a go-to for bleeding-edge emerging artists. Among them is Damali Abrams, a Reiki practitioner and self-styled “glitter priestess”; Theresa Chromati, whose sensual paintings also feature protruding soft silk sculptures and leather; and Devan Shimoyama, known for narrative self-portraits and paintings of figures evoking folklore, myths and personal stories that sell for up to $85,000.
“I use glitter for a multitude of reasons,” says Shimoyama. He gravitated towards it “for its reflective quality, the way that it holds a very different presence when viewed in person, commanding attention and dazzling as one observes the surface. I also love that it creates more texture and fantastical elements within a painting. As a craft material, it has a kind of cheapness to it, but there’s an effectively faux-glamorous effect when used in the right way. More is often more.”
–All text courtesy of Charlotte Jansen/Financial Times.