At the Oceanside Museum of Art, UCSD grad Kevin Vincent gets personal and historical
Artist Kevin Vincent combines rope and wood into explorations of Black trauma and personal growth
In January of this year, UC San Diego alum Kevin Vincent was in the same position as a lot of recent graduates. He had his master of fine arts degree, but his graduate thesis group show was canceled because of COVID-19. He was picking up work doing gallery installations for other artists’ shows, but he had no idea where his own career was going to go. And with the world on hold for who knows how long, what would that career look like, anyway?
Vincent was 28 years old and living in the United State of Limbo. But not for long.
Midway through the month, Vincent got a call from the Oceanside Museum of Art. An upcoming exhibition dropped out of the schedule, would he be available to show his work in one of their galleries? And could he be ready by February? And while he was at it, could he create a new piece? In two weeks?
He would. He could. And he did.
Vincent’s exhibition, “Material Memory,” opened on Feb. 20. It will run through July 3. He will continue to be astounded for the foreseeable future.
“A lot of artists don’t get an opportunity to have a solo show for a very long time, and to be just out of school and have everything closed because of COVID, and then to get the opportunity, this was amazing,” Vincent, now 29, said during a phone interview from his home in the UTC area.
“When you’re creating, you have a lot of stuff in your head, and you think, ‘Maybe this is good,’ but you don’t know. But getting to have people see it and react to it, it is so nice as an artist. This has been so great.”
The physical materials Vincent used to make the three assemblages featured in “Material Memory” — the delicate, almost insect-like “Reconstruction: One Whole Bush”; the new, weeping willow-inspired “Growth”; and the knotty “Untitled” — are basic. There is rope. There are tree branches and a tree trunk. There are rippling leaves.
And then there is the non-physical matter that went into the mix.
Those materials — Vincent’s memories of growing up in suburban Atlanta, the historical trauma of slavery in America, the modern reckoning of the Black Lives Matter movement — have layers of meaning and emotion that are not basic at all.
“When my brother and I were growing up, our neighbors had a rope swing. Our grandparents had a rope swing,” said Vincent, who was born in Charlotte, N.C., grew up in Atlanta and got his undergraduate degree at Georgia State University. “As a Black man, rope is very charged. But the more I thought about it, I saw that as a kid, rope had no negative connotation. Rope was a thing that had another purpose. It was there for me to enjoy myself and to physically support me as I would swing.
“There is something really nice and pure about accepting the material for what it is. A lot of this work is addressing the trauma. The rope is really embedded into the trees. It cannot be removed. But there is a sense of change and growth as you push forward and learn more and grow more.”
Vincent created “Reconstruction: One Whole Bush” and “Untitled” during graduate school, but they gained new resonance after the summer of 2020, as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of police officers sparked protests against police violence.
The protests also aimed an unflinching spotlight on the subject of racism in the United States, starting with the Black men, women and children who were brought to America to be sold as slaves.
The slave ships were made of wood. The men, women and children were bound by ropes. In “Material Memory,” Vincent takes these materials and weaves their dark history with his lighter memories of swinging on rope swings, climbing trees and living in a leafy place where he felt safe. The result is an exhibition that is complex enough to move viewers on multiple levels, but beautiful enough to dazzle them the moment they walk in.
“Our visitors have had such an emotional experience in this exhibition,” said Katie Dolgov, the museum’s exhibitions manager and registrar. “On a surface level, visitors have been really in awe of how well-structured Kevin’s art works are and how beautifully the materials work together. He is taking materials that have a raw and challenging identity and reinterpreting that so we can see them in a new light, as works of art, not just materials that have been used to inflict harm. It is really telling the story of a history and a perspective that we want to be heard.”
Vincent likes to make drop-in visits to the museum to see how visitors are reacting to his pieces. He doesn’t want to make anyone feel exactly what he feels when he looks at pieces of rope sprouting from hunks of wood, but he does want to make them look.
Because if people are looking, they are learning.
“Oceanside is a predominantly White, older community, but a lot of the people have really understood the idea of having something that is inside that you can’t remove from yourself,” said Vincent, who is starting a new job as art handler at the Quint Gallery in La Jolla.
“I am very interested in being a connective bridge for someone who doesn’t understand the fear people of color have, and how it is ingrained and not something that can be removed. It has to be worked through, and that isn’t an easy process.”
Kevin Vincent’s “Material Memory” will be on display at the Oceanside Museum of Art through July 3. oma-online.org
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