About a year ago I had a studio visit with abstractionist Khalilah Birdsong for the first time. Something about her dense layering techniques, bold and striking colors and precision amidst the chaos pulled me in. She told me I wasn’t the first to have an instinctive pull to the works. “Collectors have told me that something just makes them gravitate towards the paintings,” she said. “I’ve had a few people tell me they just stood in front of them and wept.”
Birdsong, who was born in Ohio but grew up in Atlanta, is a self-taught painter who turned to artwork to work out the stress and anxiety of her life. Through her work as director of communications at Tyler Perry Studios, most of her energies had gone toward fostering the visions and messages of other artists, creatives and executives. As a woman who has always taken her own intuition very seriously, she found herself drawn to painting as a means of self-expression just five years ago. Her ascent in the art world since her first trip to Michael’s is nothing short of impressive. She was first represented by Bill Lowe Gallery before being picked up by Restoration Hardware Contemporary Art. She’s been included in numerous group shows, had a solo exhibition at Cincinnati Art Underground last year and has works in the private collections of President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama, Monica Kaufman Pearson and Tyler Perry, to name a few. Her works have also been on prominent display on shows featured on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
November 11 marks the opening of Birdsong’s first solo exhibition in Atlanta. The show, Siren’s Call, at Hathaway Contemporary, is an exploration of Birdsong’s works from the past three years. “A lot of expressions will be shown,” she told me by phone recently. “I mean, this is an exploration in how I’ve evolved over the past three years. I’ve worked with a lot of different materials.”
In her artist statement, Birdsong states that her works are explorations in survival and resurgence. “Distress and weathering is palpable on the canvas, but so is reawakening. I build layers up and then take them away to create a painting that is, ultimately, whole,” she says.
The exhibition will include large expressionist works and more recent installation pieces. “I was really inspired by Daniel Arsham’s exhibit at the High Museum,” said Birdsong. “Art shouldn’t just be hung on walls.” She reflects on how her works from her solo exhibition in Cincinnati came back wrapped in kraft paper, which Birdsong didn’t want to waste. Her creative process led to dying canvases, utilizing the paper and wrapping up the works with rope. “They looked like gifts to me,” she remarked. Coincidentally, when Birdsong made her way to Maui to look for her new home (the artist now primarily lives in Hawaii, coming back to work with Tyler Perry Studios at least once a month), she opened up Hawaii Airlines magazine, only to see pūʻolo, a traditional Hawaiian offering. “It was so strange, I had no idea what a pūʻolo was when I made ‘Autumn’s Harvest,’” she said, “but when I saw them in the magazine I realized I had intuited exactly that, a traditional Hawaiian offering.” Birdsong felt that it was an auspicious sign for her impending move.
I had heard of Cincinnati Art Underground, an Over-the-Rhine commercial gallery that opened in late 2015, but not yet visited it when I received a press release in November announcing the current show, Khalilah Birdsong’s Amalgamation.
It impressed and surprised me because it came with a photo of a colorfully abstract painting that had a striking similarity to the work of Gerhard Richter. It had that look of paint engagingly applied, perhaps rolled, onto canvas and then carefully scraped to achieve a sense of movement, of action, to make it seem alive.
That probably would have been enough to interest me. You don’t see that much work by Richter around here (although the Cincinnati Art Museum has a lovely small painting, acquired during Aaron Betsky’s tenure as director), so a show by an artist influenced by him gets my attention. It sho
ws sophisticated taste. But it also could be called “derivative,” not a word that the Contemporary art world likes to use, although artists are naturally influenced by others.
So I was further intrigued that the email about the show acknowledged and addressed the Richter similarity head-on. “Many of her works remind people of Gerhard Richter, but she is inspired by different circumstances,” it said. “Further, she has been branching out in her experimentations with materials and in her juxtapositions of different techniques.”
Having now attended the show, which is on display through Jan. 21 at the gallery at 1415 Main St., I can see that. I can also see beyond that — this is a commercial Contemporary gallery trying to make an impact by offering coherent, focused shows by artists local and national. As the gallery owner Rachael Moore, who is working with artist/creative director Andrey Kozakov on programming Cincinnati Art Underground, explains in an interview, she wants this to be a place that presents shows in a serious way. That means they have a limited number of artists — even just one — and also firm opening and closing dates. The work is presented like a cultural event, not as inventory in a showroom.
“Maybe an artist working in a studio is coming up with a new philosophy or a twist on some strand of Contemporary art,” Moore says. “This gives them a chance to showcase ideas and engage people. When you have too much art going on in a gallery, or on display for too long, it becomes more about the visual (presence) than the ideas. Nothing really strong comes through.”
Birdsong has strong ideas that come through in her work. A resident of Atlanta who took up painting as a diversion from her job as an executive with Tyler Perry’s film and television business, she has deep talent.
The large painting “11:11,” for instance, has acrylic paint applied in a roller-like way and then scraped to create a textured appearance. But then she has put the canvas under a large roller that inks a mysterious symbol onto the finished work — it looks a little like a freeway interchange gone mad. It is, as Moore says, “a twist on some strand of Contemporary art.”
In the painting “Frayed Edges,” Birdsong has applied remnants of old scripts and call sheets, used in her entertainment industry job, to her canvas. It’s novel.
Cincinnati Art Underground is a work in progress still. The appealing Richter-like acrylic painting that initially interested me, “The Myth of Significance,” never actually made it to Cincinnati. Birdsong sold it in Atlanta before the show. (A smaller one with a similar hypnotic approach, “Into the Hollow Feigns 3,” is on display.)
There is the issue of whether Cincinnati has the collectors to support the artists Moore wants to show. But she is continuing onward with her dedication to her approach. Opening Jan. 27 and continuing through Feb. 4 is an exhibit of paintings by David Gerena, who established himself in 1980s-era New York as a street artist. The opening will feature a DJ.
“I thought maybe being on Main Street might be a way to get some of the younger people living downtown who really want to be connected to cool things to do,” Moore says. “I want to give them a chance to engage with the visual arts world and maybe connect with the artists we’re showing.”
words TRISH RICHTER | photography DEOGRACIAS LERMA
Practiced at managing the creative talents of others, abstract painter Khalilah Birdsong’s career in business has been defined by the intentionality and pragmatism that often comes with that path. She finds herself in a proverbial pool of creativity in her current role as Director of Communications and Engagement for Tyler Perry Studios where she has held various positions for the last eight years. Even with her practical mind juxtaposed to this hub of creation, Khalilah had never seriously explored an artistic medium. But just four short years ago, guided by impulse or intuition, Khalilah left the office and found herself in the paint aisle at Michaels®, the art supply and hobby store. With the difference between oil and acrylic paint lost on her, she chose a wooden bird as her first canvas.
“I remember the first stroke across the bird’s wing: August 4th, 2012. I was hooked, transcended,” Khalilah told me. After the bird came small canvases, which eventually yielded to dimensions of seven to ten feet. She laughs and tells me that the six-foot canvases surrounding us are babies. “I’ve always wanted to paint big. I guess I’ve always had a lot to say; my soul had a lot to get out,” she said.
An endeavor that began as a data dump thrust her into the discovery of the depths of her own creativity, rather than that of others.
Khalilah’s studio is based at The Goat Farm Arts Center in Atlanta where she grew up, but she was born in Ohio and tells me that being here feels like coming home. We met at Cincinnati Art Underground where her exhibition, Amalgamation, is on display. The collection of abstract paintings is striking in both scale and saturation, but the physicality of her work offers another dimension for those who seek out her work in person. There’s intentionality to the layering and stripping away of paint, almost reflective of her pragmatic mind, which creates texture while revealing glimpses of “older, more forgotten colors.” There’s a viscerality balanced within the stratum that keeps your eyes from resting for too long. Because of this spatial relationship, the viewer’s physical presence adds another layer to her work. While interpretation of any work can be influenced by light, hers can transform with a particular angle.
If you look closely enough, between these layers you’ll find anything from pages of scripts to chunks of charcoal. She follows this layering process and as the materials shift, so do the outcomes. These densely layered pieces are a stage or a layer in their own right within her creative process when viewed alongside other works that embody earlier phases of creation, all holding relationship with one another. Each piece holds its own place in time, its own place in her process of growth. With every added layer and with every layer your mind strips away, the piece takes new form. The spatial relationship transcends to a temporal level for Khalilah. “This amalgamation of time represented is the unification of both materials and the different spaces you find yourself in while creating,” she said.
This amalgamation—this process of combining or uniting—can only be experienced in person.
In just four short years, Khalilah’s paintings have taken their places among major national galleries including Bill Lowe Gallery in Atlanta; on the set of Tyler Perry’s drama “If Loving You Is Wrong;” on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network; and in the personal collection of Barack and Michelle Obama. Additionally, Khalilah works with RH Contemporary Art (Restoration Hardware) and Loupe Art on Apple TV.
You can experience Amalgamation at Cincinnati Art Underground, 1415 Main Street. The exhibition will show through January 21, 2017. Also, find her work at www.khalilahbirdsong.com.