ST. LOUIS — The unabashedly feminine oeuvre of collagist, sculptor, and conceptual artist Sandra Payne is a smorgasbord of shimmer and sequin, a bling manifesto for the senses at brazen odds with the minimalist white cube. A World of Shine, a retrospective devoted to the late artist and librarian’s career, on view at projects+gallery, celebrates Payne’s gravitation toward the refulgent and rare, while also reminding viewers of her devotion to humble materials and everyday objects. Born and raised in St. Louis, Payne moved to New York in the early 1980s, becoming part of a community of Black artists who, in the 1970s and ’80s, made an imprint at avant-garde galleries like Just Above Midtown. As a librarian for the New York City Public Library for nearly 30 years, she honed her passion for collecting and cataloguing while continuing to make and show art at small galleries throughout the city. By the time she passed away at 70, 13 years after returning to St. Louis, her historic home had itself become an archive of eclectic objets de art — from glass vitrines of mid-century promotional rain bonnets to designer perfume and cologne bottles.
A World of Shine centers on a series of collages cut from high-resolution images of fine jewelry sold in auction catalogues, but it includes as well a selection of Payne’s figurative ink drawings, aluminum sculptures, and tableaux of antique bric-à-brac. Accompanying the exhibition, a monograph designed by Danielle and Kevin McCoy of Work/Play features contributions from the curatorial team, in addition to reflections from a wide array of Payne’s contemporaries and loved ones.
The following conversation with curator Margaret Rieckenberg was held at the gallery in September. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Hyperallergic: Sandra Payne’s exhibition was planned to launch in 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic, during which time the artist passed away. What role did she play in the show when she was alive?
Margaret Rieckenberg: While we were in discussion with her, it was still very much the early planning stages. She was the person who was producing the main concepts and themes behind the show. We were basically following the same model that we would with any artists for a solo exhibition — very collaborative, very much allowing the artist to take the reins of the exhibition. At the time, she was definitely wanting to showcase the collages. First and foremost, we wanted to support this, but we also wanted to expand out to incorporate some of her sculptural pieces, too, which had been exhibited in the ’90s as a whole series of work.
After she passed away, we spent many hours going through what she had in her house — including over 100 collages. Her personality was not about really talking about herself, or her artwork, so much as talking about other people, so we spent a lot of time just getting to know her through her home and through talking to loved ones. Initially, the exhibition was not conceived of as a retrospective in any sense, so those sculptural pieces would have taken a more minor role had she not passed away.
H: What informed your decision to transform some of her collages into wallpaper that covers the back of the gallery?
MR: Early on, Susan Barrett [president of Barrett Barrera Projects] came up with that idea, especially because there is a decorative element to the aesthetic of the collages, and she wanted to play with that, to push at what people interpret as art versus the decorative. We decided that the wallpaper would be a really great way to showcase another way in which the collages could function and could live in interior space.
H: The wallpaper behind the framed collages seems to collapse the boundary between fine art and the decorative in a beautifully irreverent way. But it also felt in keeping with what I perceived to be Payne’s own manner of experimentation.
MR: She was definitely pushing the boundaries between your everyday sensate experience and your experience of an art object, asking you to call into question your own sense of viewing the world around you. She’s taking these everyday objects and recontextualizing them, and in doing so creating this whole new system of value. The wallpaper was a natural extension of that conceptual aspect of her practice — not only to emphasize the actual aesthetic value of the collages that she was doing, by blowing them up to a monumental scale, but to continue pushing those boundaries in her honor.
H: The exhibition also pays tribute to the hyper femme — an aesthetic category that’s recently gotten a lot more attention.
MR: I think that hyper femme aesthetic is really important [in relation to] the fact that she was a Black woman. From an art historical perspective, the Black female body has traditionally been claimed by others. There’s not a history of self-claiming, that celebratory joy of establishing oneself. For example, in portraiture, the Black woman’s body is always objectified or even erased in some way. And Sandra was really claiming that sexuality in a very feminine, self-assured way. That confidence is probably most apparent in her Venus Ink Drawings that we included, from 1986, when she was showing at Just Above Midtown, and really in the depths of her exploration.
H: I think it’s also important that her collages are made from auction catalogue photography. Sandra was from a very middle-class background, and both her work and life seemed to be very pro-bling, but not necessarily pro-wealth.
MR: That was very crucial to Sandra’s approach to her practice — reassigning the value of what things are worth based on her own standards of beauty and value. For her to say, “This is beautiful because I say it is. This is art because I say it is” is very much in line with the White male avant-garde practice of reassigning what is considered art. She’s doing the same thing, but then also extending that into societal standards of beauty and value.
Sandra Payne: A World of Shine continues at projects+gallery (4733 McPherson Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri) through October 22. The exhibition was curated by Margaret Rieckenberg.
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