Henry Taylor, I became . . . , 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 71 7/8 x 71 3/4 inches

I had never been to the Venice Biennale before. I expected it to be like any art fair, a mild cacophony of work stuck up on walls creating visual white noise that prevents me from properly taking anything in. But it wasn’t like that. Some rooms were absolutely overwhelming, intentionally or not, and some were quiet and contemplative, giving you more of an opportunity to absorb the work. I sat in room 33 of the Giardini main pavilion to watch BLKNWS by Khalil Joseph, a collection of produced segments featuring actors, curators, artists, and collectors as news anchors. The form was some combination of vines (social media videos), pop YouTube content, and cinema with stream-of-consciousness logic presented on split screens. I ended up spending over an hour in the space because it was so damn good, completely losing track of time. Upon realizing this, I went into somewhat of a panic; the friends watching with me had all gone, and I had an irrational fear that they were probably so far ahead in seeing the pavilions that I would be left behind. Despite logically knowing that I’m an adult and can make it through Venice on my own if I have to, anxiety lacks logic, so I got up and hustled through room after room. I missed a lot of work, glancing quickly at full rooms before climbing the stairs to the one elevated room in the main building. I swept that room too and turned to run back down, but stopped.

Beyond Nairy Baghramain’s sculptures in the center of the room on the back wall was a painting of two figures, a young black boy and an amorphous black man standing behind him. It takes a lot to bring me out of an episode of anxiety, even for a moment; but I was so struck by this painting that it brought me back to myself. The man behind the boy was scrawled on the canvas, ears lopsided bolts on the sides of his head, eyes offset and odd sizes described in yellow paint smeared into the umber beneath it. Only a handful of active, descriptive brushstrokes indicated the familiar features of a face and body, brushed on thick and fast until they reached the shirtless man’s left arm, ending in more of a wash and revealing the canvas ground. Overall, there was chaos in his figure, strokes sometimes lining up with the form, and sometimes going against the logic of the body. 

The man’s nubbed hands rested upon the boy’s shoulders; the boy a much more solid and realized figure that confronted the viewer with a somber gaze. It is this contact between the two that created a tenderness despite the melancholic face of the child. Unlike in the other figure, here the expressive mark making follows the planes of his face, creating form and dimension. His ears are far too big for his little head; he hasn’t grown into them yet. The sharp collared shirt he’s wearing makes me think of “picture day” in school when I was young. Behind the two is a simplified landscape, a large portion of medium grey, with a quarter of the canvas at the top a dusty blue. A thin blue brushstroke cautiously divides the two colors, forming the horizon line. There is a disregard for boundaries in the painting, with patches of white canvas creeping through the image and errant brushstrokes dashed here and there. It makes me think of the process and motion of the artist as if I were standing in his shoes, and maybe that is the point. After all, it is a self-portrait.

The title is I Became…, a statement suggesting that the artist is reflecting on himself and his past. Is he putting his child self in the foreground, with the future lingering in the background as a temporal being with tenuous form? Or is he the man, gently holding onto the vestige of his childhood with two barely formed hands, certain of his past but uncertain of his present. Paintings like this make you look back at yourself through the eyes and the experience of another. What have I become? What will I become? I turned from the painting and left, the image of the boy and the man echoing as I returned to wandering through the rest of the gargantuan Biennale. I found myself still thinking about it days later after many other more grandiose pieces had already slipped through the sieve of my mind.

Lydia Pettit, I never could cross my legs, 2019, Oil on canvas, 53 x 53 inches

Lydia Pettit is a Painter and curator from Baltimore, Maryland, where she ran Platform Gallery for three years. Pettit’s paintings explore the experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the politics of the body, using her own image to convey the duality of strength and vulnerability. She is currently living in London pursuing her MA in painting at the Royal College of Art.