Horizontal collage image of Alicia Piller, Devin Kenny, and Nana Adusei-Poku Alicia Piller, Devin Kenny, and Nana Adusei-Poku

School of Art Launches Rosalind Harris Visiting Critic Program

Throughout the spring semester, CalArts’ School of Art welcomed scholar Nana Adusei-Poku, artist and CalArts alum Alicia Piller (Art MFA 19), and artist-writer-musician Devin Kenny as inaugural visiting critics in the Rosalind Harris Visiting Critic Program, part of the Charles Gaines Faculty Chair initiative. Each visiting critic participated in an on-campus residency that included free public talks, pedagogical workshops, and studio visits with CalArts students.

Adusei-Poku began the series in March with the lecture “Black Melancholia as Critical Practice.” Taking its title and theme from an exhibition curated by Adusei-Poku last summer at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies in upstate New York, the exhibition brought together the work of 28 artists of African descent to expand and complicate the notion of “melancholy” in Western art history and cultures. The exhibition pushed beyond the iconography of melancholia as an art historical subject and psychoanalytical concept to subvert highly racialized discourses in which notions of longing, despair, sadness, and loss were not only pathologized but also reserved for white cis (fe-)male subjects. In her presentation, Adusei-Poku discussed the larger research project in which Black melancholia is embedded through the exhibition itself, various case studies, as well as methodological challenges in African diasporic art history.

During her Distinguished Alumnx Lecture “Journey to Materiality,” Piller discussed her art practice and her own blueprint for creation and navigation, going back in time while moving us forward on her continued voyage. Noted for her large-scale mixed-media sculptures, Piller’s practice examines historical traumas, both political and environmental, through the lens of a microscope.  

Kenny’s talk aligned with his current research that proposes the syncretic cultures of the Black Atlantic as a forerunner to the logic of contemporary network culture and uses that as a launchpad for social and aesthetic critique. By fluctuating between the research-responsive and the intuitive, and frequently with sharp humor, Kenny uses a wide modality of mediums and modes of distribution to complicate ideas on contemporary culture as it has been impacted by network technology by “any means possible.” 

In August 2020, philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton honored artist and longtime CalArts faculty Charles Gaines with a $5 million gift to create the Charles Gaines Faculty Chair and related programming. The gift facilitates further professional development for Black and other underrepresented faculty members in the School of Art through its support of research, creative activities, and curriculum innovation, which includes the new visiting critic program.

“We are at a sociopolitical moment in which diversity cannot just be about appearance. We need deep, varied, complex approaches to Black study and experimentalism,” said Steven Lam, Kraus Family Distinguished Dean Chair of Art. These three visiting critics each addressed how artistic work can challenge the aftereffects of racial capitalism through examinations of the curatorial archive, everyday experiments in the studio, or explorations with style and technology. 

Lam continues, “We look forward to working with the Eileen Norton Harris Foundation to develop the Charles Gaines Faculty Chair in the years to come.”