Pamela Council Looks to Black Vernacular Culture to Expose Social Inequality

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“It’s absolutely wild that this is the first time I’ve directly referenced Twitter in my work,” wrote Pamela Council on their Instagram the day before the opening of their survey show, Bury Me Loose, at Denny Dimin Gallery (which has announced its representation of the artist). Over the past decade, Council has established a multifaceted, interdisciplinary practice that draws from vernacular culture to tackle issues surrounding Black identity, gender, and heteronormative societal expectations. The exhibition title stems from a tweet posted by the comedian @yedoye_ on March 11, 2021, that reads: “damn a coffin costs $4000??? Y’all can bury me loose.” Much like the tweeter, Council often uses humor as a political tool to expose systems of power and inequality in a society in which even death carries a high price tag. 

Upon entering the gallery space, viewers are met with something squishy underfoot, instantly heightening the sensory experience. Small chunks of recycled rubber tires that are commonly used as playground mulch cover the entire floor of the first room, which holds two of Council’s most compelling pieces. On the left, the artist’s iconic sculpture “Flo Jo World Record Nails”(2012–21) emerges from the wall like a giant, colorful caterpillar. A tribute to the track and field athlete Florence Griffith Joyner, who famously refused to compromise her personal aesthetic and sported fabulous acrylic fingernails during the 1988 Olympics, this work is one of many in Council’s oeuvre that references sports culture. 

Installation view of Pamela Council: Bury Me Loose at Denny Dimin Gallery, New York

On the opposite wall, five reliefs composed of silicone on wood panel appear, at first glance, like mosaic tiles of osseous matter in a range of light skin tones. In actuality, they are hand-carved reproductions of Reebok sneaker designs, and the hues replicate those of sneaker soles. As Aruna D’Souza notes in her 4Columns review, Council was briefly employed by the sports brand, and considered pursuing a career as a sneaker designer.

The highlights of the exhibition, in my opinion, are positioned on three wall-mounted pale blue shelfs that recall Venus’s half-shell in Boticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (1485–86). Instead of the Roman goddess, the shelfs offer support to tiny Greek columns, velvet boxes, and open shells — all items that can serve as engagement ring displays. In place of rings, however, the displays are adorned with ambiguously shaped objects made of Sculpey polymer clay, and strangely reminiscent of uni — the sea urchin’s sex organ that produces roe. As Council mentions on their website, this Ringholders (2016–ongoing) series arose from their father’s continuous questioning of when Council would get married, despite knowing perfectly well that the artist is “not about that life.” 

Installation view of Pamela Council: Bury Me Loose at Denny Dimin Gallery, New York

Council’s self-coined term for their aesthetic, BLAXIDERMY, is at the core of each work in the exhibition. Combining “taxidermy” and “blaxploitation,” BLAXIDERMY references “culture’s obsession with Black death, adornment, and performativity.” Evoking the body while never directly representing it, the artist refuses to cater to society’s expectations of easily legible politically engaged art, and assumed notions of what identity politics should look like. Applying a poetically camp aesthetic instead, Council employs humor, embellishment, and sensuous materials to create alluring works; the works are nevertheless tinged with the history of adversity that Black people have experienced. Inherently political and poignantly timely, Council represents the radical potential of soft power.

Pamela Council: Bury Me Loose continues at Denny Dimin Gallery (39 Lispenard Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through October 23. 

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