Art Review: William Ransom’s Sculptural Installation Speaks to Racial Reckoning, Seeking Balance and Holding On | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Art Review: William Ransom’s Sculptural Installation Speaks to Racial Reckoning, Seeking Balance and Holding On


From left: "Our Unfinished Work," "88" and "Taser" - COURTESY OF ERIN JENKINS/BMAC
  • Courtesy of Erin Jenkins/BMAC
  • From left: "Our Unfinished Work," "88" and "Taser"

William Ransom's exhibit might make you sneeze. "Keep Up/Hold Up," on view at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, features two unexpected olfactory elements: pine tar and burnt wood. Their nose-tickling aromas were pungent during an opening reception on October 23 and linger still.

But this did not, and should not, prevent viewers from closely engaging with Ransom's works. Though modest in number — six sculptural pieces plus a charcoal outline of the artist drawn on a wall — the collection is visually and conceptually potent. And its slightly caustic emanations are actually apropos.

In achingly eloquent ways, Ransom addresses the current national reckoning with systemic racism. His sculptural creations show us the terrible consequences of that system, as well as the tensions inherent in bumping toward "a more perfect union."

The tension is also personal. Ransom, 46, is biracial, born to a white father from Vermont and an African American mother from Pennsylvania. He was raised on a dairy farm, surrounded by the rhythms of nature and the tools and materials that now serve his artwork. (In early adulthood he cofounded the Strafford Creamery with his two brothers.) Ransom acknowledged that he "grew up in mostly white spaces ... listening to country music and hip-hop."

William Ransom - TOM MCNEILL
  • Tom Mcneill
  • William Ransom

Though he doesn't feel particularly oppressed, Ransom said, he knows that his skin color dictates the context in which others see him. Sometimes he wishes he could "just make art," he admitted, but he also feels compelled "to respond to this moment" through his practice.

"Regardless of the work I make, it will be read through the inescapable lens of my blackness," he writes in an artist statement for BMAC. "I am simultaneously compelled to keep up (maintain) my blackness and to hold up (check) my blackness."

Chief curator Mara Williams, in her own gallery statement, puts it this way: "Bearing the weight of white supremacist history, William Ransom's sculptural installation creates a transitory provisional state, rife with an inherent unease and uncertainty."

Williams is referring particularly to the artist's pieces that are constructed from narrow wood strips and held together with a workshop clamp. Plainly including such a utilitarian object isn't just a whimsical aesthetic choice. Remove it and the taut architectural form would "fly apart with this incredible energy," Williams said by phone.

As such, the tool also becomes a metaphor for America's aspirational motto, e pluribus unum — "out of many, one" — and for the fragility of that pluralistic ideal.

One of Ransom's sculptures incorporating a clamp is the wall-hung "Our Unfinished Work." In it, more than a dozen strips of wood are carefully secured, side by side, to a dark-stained 4-by-4-inch post roughly 40 inches long. Ransom gathered up the strips, looped them around and clamped the entire bundle, barrette-like, to one end of the post. The work's dichotomy of orderly and haphazard aligns with its title.

The sculpture's resulting form, abetted by its shadow on the gallery wall, calls to mind a whisk gone awry.

The freestanding piece "Steal Away" has a sturdier and even commanding presence, rising six feet in the center of the gallery space. An assemblage of vertical and horizontal wood components, it resembles a sail in a stiff wind. To anthropomorphize, it looks assertive. But is the clamp near the base of the piece, as Williams suggests, "provisional"? Its presence introduces the possibility of mutiny.

  • Photos Courtesy Of Erin Jenkins/BMAC
  • "Steal Away"

These works hold energy in potential: the promise, or threat, of what might be. Maintaining balance, they seem to imply, is a fraught responsibility.

More pointedly, "Keep Up/Hold Up" addresses the trauma of violence and persecution endured by people of color in the U.S. Three of Ransom's installations at BMAC reflect on the police killings of Black males, all in Minneapolis.

"Token" is a roundish, 23-by-26-inch slice of birch. Ransom burned into its surface the outline of a buffalo and the words "FIVE CENTS." The piece calls up the expression "Don't take any wooden nickels" and is an oblique reference to the allegedly counterfeit $20 bill that George Floyd, 46, presented to a convenience store cashier on May 25, 2020. It was the reason that police were called to the scene and led to Floyd's death by asphyxiation under the knee of officer Derek Chauvin.

The title "88" may be obscure to some viewers; it refers to an Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight — the make of the 1997 car that 32-year-old Philando Castile was driving when he was stopped for a broken taillight in 2016. His girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter were in the car, forced to witness a police officer fatally shoot Castile as he reached for, presumably, his car registration.

Ransom represents this killing with a scrap-wood facsimile of a car bumper and taillight wrapped in red plastic. Even without the context, the piece seems like a fragment of catastrophe.

The installation "Taser" includes blocks of charred wood assembled in the shape of a pine tree, about 4 inches thick and 30 inches tall. It references the car deodorizer that Daunte Wright, 20, had hanging from his rearview mirror — an "obstruction of vision" for which he was pulled over and then shot last April.

This is where the pine tar comes in: Ransom cut "TASER" in the center of the tree and swabbed the word with the sticky stuff, allowing it to drip.

"He wanted it to sort of weep black tears," Williams explained. Absorbing some of those "tears" is Ransom's own gray hoodie sweatshirt, which he spontaneously hung beneath the weeping wood during installation.

Though born in a place with more cows than cops, Ransom is no stranger to being stopped for "driving while Black," nor to urban living. During an interview at his home in Norwich — which he shares with his wife, Oona Gardner, a ceramic artist who grew up in Vershire, and their two young daughters — he explained that his father moved the family to the West Coast when he was in middle school. Ransom finished high school in northern California.

  • Courtesy Of Erin Jenkins/BMAC
  • "Token"

Eventually back in Vermont, Ransom went to Bennington College, earning his undergraduate degree in sculpture and architecture in 2004. He returned to California for his MFA at Claremont Graduate University.

But he dreamed of returning to the Green Mountain State once again, Ransom said. Following a yearlong visiting professorship at Middlebury College, he accepted a faculty position in 2018 at Marlboro College. Two years later, that school closed. Ransom now teaches at both his alma mater, Bennington, and Dartmouth College.

He and Gardner bought their Norwich home in March 2020, Ransom said, just as the coronavirus arrived. With a studio nearby, it's not a bad place to hunker down in a pandemic.

The handsome midcentury house is filled with artwork. There are wall-hung ceramic sculptures by Gardner and earlier pieces Ransom made in response to living with type 1 diabetes. A small assemblage on a shelf in the living room includes a clamp, embedded in concrete, and five $100 bills. Titled "Redemption of Jupiter," it refers to an ancestor of Ransom's mother who, as a bonded slave in 1832, was valued at $500.

Across the room, next to a print by French abstractionist Sonia Delaunay, is an Obie Award. It's for a Clear Channel-owned billboard that Ransom created in honor of Floyd.

A friend at Minneapolis arts nonprofit NE Sculpture | Gallery Factory invited him to participate in the Social Justice Billboard Project, Ransom explained, noting that the two-dimensional typographic medium differs dramatically from his usual 3D work. And he was quite surprised to win an award for it. "I didn't know there were Obies for billboards," Ransom remarked.

At the intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, the billboard perched for three months on a two-story building overlooking the Floyd memorial. It contained three lines of text in white on a black background. Two are biblical quotes; the third is a simple but powerful statement that has international currency in the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out of me." (Luke 8:46)
"Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?" (John 8:46)
"I can't breathe ... mama." (George 8:46)

Ransom noted that the billboard installations are ongoing. "Now is the time for us to be shouting from the rooftops," he says in a video for the project. "We are now living in the Gospel of George."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Present Tense"

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