Much like her stage performances, Vanessa German's visual art takes me to another place and time. Objectification, her show of new works at Gallerie Chiz, offers an incredible collection of ideas and experiences.
The Pittsburgh-based artist's doll-like mixed-media sculptural assemblages have many sources of inspiration, beginning with the Congolese "Nkisi" power figures which inspire their shape and form. "Nkisi" is the general name for a variety of objects used throughout Central Africa's Congo Basin, and thought to contain spirits, or spiritual powers.
Indeed, German's work takes you to a mystical world, where meaning is found by intuition: You're not quite sure what the pieces are saying. Each sculpture is highly complex, layered in material and references.
German creates the figures using accumulated materials and everyday found objects, starting with doll parts (typically painted black) and including every household item imaginable: teapots, irons, knives, spoons, small boxes, mirrors, figurines, cloth, animal bones, keys, locks, beads and much more. Each item is carefully placed; each completed work becomes a vessel for communion with a historical past.
Each of the 27 pieces in this show carries its own collection of cultural memories: German's work is a sort of memory-mining, one that embraces all things. Much like Bettye Saar, Allison Saar or Willie Cole, German uses common objects to bring to our attention issues of race, gender and individual worth.
The references are complex, at times obscure. Mounted on the back of one figure, for instance, is a small newsprint image of Sarah Baartman, the so-called "Hottentot Venus." The work, "Tar Baby Jackson Gets Revenge and Kicks Ass," is inspired by the sticky aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The figure, with legs sort of growing out of it, also includes an image of an "Aunt Jemina" doll labeled "New Orleans."
German repeats certain images: Throughout Objectification, you'll see birds and Christian memorabilia, mirrors, keys and locks, and containers of all sorts.
What does it all mean? What is German saying, or attempting to say? In a sense, it's irrelevant: Each piece is a collage that embodies innumerable ideas and experiences, which will give meaning to each of us differently.
German, who is also a spoken-word performer and actor, leaves it to viewers to interpret her work. She even makes pieces whose vessels or containers are left empty for the purchaser to fill with his or her own material and memory.
The assemblages in Objectification embody an unraveling of ideas and raise questions of freedom, struggle, forgiveness and hope. This is powerful work, the kind that makes you stop and say, "What is that?" And with that question, your journey begins.Objectification continues through March 31. Gallerie Chiz, 5831 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside. 412-441-6005 or www.galleriechiz.com