Un/Sent Stream: a review of Torkwase Dyson’s recent exhibition, Dear Henry; Davidson Gallery; March 15–May 5, 2018 | Sarah Jane Cervenak (28.3)

Artist Torkwase Dyson’s Spring 2018 exhibition at Chelsea’s Davidson gallery is framed around an im/possible salutation. 1 A stunning collection of what the artist calls “water table” paintings and acrylic/gouache drawings, Dear Henry bespeaks the promise of a letter-to-come to Henry Box Brown, an enslaved man who mailed himself to the free state of Pennsylvania in 1849. 2

This letter in some ways starts and stays in the beginning, wades in its waters or perhaps makes of water what the exhibit’s curator describes as an “open proposition.” A proposition that perhaps fugitively moves from a salutation into some undecoded wayward lines, drips, watercolored blossoms, and matte black trapezoids donning each of Dyson’s canvases; a proposition phantasmatically ambling near Box Brown’s own fugitive movement, honoring the architectural-kinetic-spiritual-fleshly negotiations he made to “get to where he needed to go.“ Brown, enslaved in Richmond, Virginia, convinced Samuel A. Smith to nail a box shut around him, wrap five hickory hoops around the box, and ship it to a member of the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia. The box was 2 feet 8 inches wide, 2 feet deep and 3 feet long” (National Underground Railroad Freedom Center).


On the artist’s own website, the paintings are described as being

buil[t] [...] slowly, accumulating washes and configuring minimal geometric elements through a process of improvisation and reflection. The paint-handling producing various surfaces using brushwork and other tools is made poetic by a juxtaposition of dense marks and scored, diagrammatic lines. This compositional rigor imbues the works with an architectural presence and optical gravity. (Torkwase Dyson)

In another essay by the artist, Dyson describes her work as a kind of otherwise spatiality, a formal and conceptual veneration of traditions of black spatial negotiation and innovation through an intuitive, painterly-architectural teleceptive reach:

From the black-inside-black position, I stand in front of a surface with my mind in complete awareness of form as power. As I begin to convey shape, line, movement, weight, scale, proximity, and perspective, representations of subjects oscillate between scaled diagrammatic images and expressive drawings. (2017)

In Dear Henry, the water table, as the scene of letter writing, is an abstract meditation on passage that arguably happens not just through proprioceptive painting but, as well, through what we might call a teleceptive painting. That is, Dyson’s formal and compositional imagining of anti-slavery’s architectural and kinetic ingenuity manifests in the artist’s haptic compositional work with water and acrylic. In that way, if proprioceptive painting can be described as the cognitive-kinetic-spatial sensation of applying a brush into pools of paint and a subsequent feel of brush making contact with the canvas, then I wonder if Dyson’s time-travelling poetic address to Box Brown bespeaks a para-hapticality of another order. Put differently, the painting’s dispatch to a long-gone, impossible addressee suggests a telepathic, or more nearly a seanced element such that its hapticality might be host to more than one para-physical expressivity.


The painting seemingly uses water as this above-ground, teleceptive bridge, an aquatic-phantae-epistolary form, between Dyson and Box Brown–where what Dyson sees/experiences Box Brown doing she artfully records on canvas. In Dear Henry, the beauty of this im/possible gathering ambles in each painting’s ecological complexity threaded between acrylic, gouache, water, canvas, and slave narrative. Perhaps, the paint brush moves as an instrument for this telekinesis, the undisclosed communique between past and present ecologies, past and present artists.

The letter has 9 beautiful parts; Council; Creek; Steam; Creek Two; Umoja; Otherwise, Untitled (Becoming 20); Untitled (Becoming 13); and I Can’t Breathe.

Council (Water Table; 2018; Acrylic on Canvas; 60 × 60 inches; 152.4 × 152.4 cm; Signed and Dated; Figure 1) is a wash of black watercolor dispersed from top to bottom, accruing in the middle around what looks like tire tracks. Framing the tire tracks like low hanging clouds are a set of four matte black trapezoid shapes. The shapes, cut with fine, grey-silver lines are in striking contrast to the watercolored background. Their seeming extraterrestiality obliquely frames those tracks suggesting that an otherworldliness beckons in the painted recording of passage.

Figure 1. Torkwase Dyson.  Council (Water Table) , 2018. Acrylic on Canvas, 60 × 60 inches, 152.4 × 152.4 cm, Signed and Dated. Courtesy of the artist and Davidson Gallery.

Figure 1. Torkwase Dyson. Council (Water Table), 2018. Acrylic on Canvas, 60 × 60 inches, 152.4 × 152.4 cm, Signed and Dated. Courtesy of the artist and Davidson Gallery.

Creek (Water Table; 2018; Acrylic on Canvas; 60×60 inches 152.4 × 152.4 cm; Signed and Dated) is comparatively lighter with white radiating from the top into what looks like an inverted city. A thin flat matte triangle juts from the top, towering toward the painting’s bottom while a matte trapezoid rises from the bottom to meet it. Moreover, ripples of broad-stroked black paint undulate across the top of the painting, with the weight of water, buckling into vertical wave like divisions. Slightly off center, black paint bubbles on the surface, texturizing the piece. Maybe there’s an indication of harmed flesh here or a bubbling up of the air into the letter, a conspiratorial vibration from Box Brown himself.

Steam (Water Table; 2018; Acrylic on Canvas; 60×60 inches 152.4 × 152.4 cm; Signed and Dated) follows Creek.

If this letter is a sequence, a series of atmospheric effects or the water cycle itself, Steam might be said to bear some of Creek. Indeed, Steam might be another angle with which to view the city in Creek. The painting carries a bluish black, medium wash on its left-hand side. Water runs in horizontal bands that also seem to gravitate to the ceiling. The upward atmospheric pull of Steam seemingly subverts the painting’s center of gravity. The painting runs up with an ocean of grey and black hues thick at the bottom and in between the towering flat matte black abstract shapes and skinny triangles, beads of water ripple up and out.

Creek II (Water Table; 2018; Acrylic on Canvas; 60×60 inches 152.4 × 152.4 cm; Signed and Dated) appears more saturated than its predecessor, more wet than rained upon. The painting’s center of gravity is now arguably indeterminate and I wonder if and whether that’s related to the abstract shapes taking on less an enclosing energy. That is, the abstract shapes in this painting are less dominating the painting’s ground and center, receding into its left and right peripheries. So too, a trapezoid floats in the middle though outweighed by the all over wash of the painting and the trace, once more, of track marks, drops of black paint that run through Creek II’s expanse (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Torkwase Dyson.  Umoja (Water Table) , 2018. Acrylic on Canvas, 60 × 60 inches, 152.4 × 152.4 cm, Signed and Dated. Courtesy of the artist and Davidson Gallery.

Figure 2. Torkwase Dyson. Umoja (Water Table), 2018. Acrylic on Canvas, 60 × 60 inches, 152.4 × 152.4 cm, Signed and Dated. Courtesy of the artist and Davidson Gallery.

Umoja (Water Table; 2018, acrylic on canvas, 60×60 inches 152.4 x 152.4 cm; Signed and Dated) is next and somehow elaborates Creek II, opening out into another ecological assertion. That is, everything runs in Umoja and in that way, I wonder whether the runny, running multiplicity of black blocks centered in Umoja somehow expresses that Swahili word for “unity” while honoring release as assemblage’s key principle. Moreover, there is the suggestion of an unmooring and blurring of abstract shapes–in this painting, on top of a grey, raining, soaked watercolored background, the black blocks are not flat matte, but painted rectangles that are somewhat cloud-like. Clouds that rain. Again thinking about the title, I wonder whether the notion of unity here beckoned by the painting’s name is precisely what makes for some other kind of movement, the release of water, a running.

After ascending to the gallery’s second floor and following the paintings’ order as listed in the catalogue, Otherwise (Water Table; 2018; Acrylic on Canvas; 96 × 144 inches; 243.8 × 365.8 cm, Signed and Dated) boldly bursts across two panels. It is, powerfully, the largest painting in the series. Depending on how you look at it, it looks like either a Jersey/Philly sky at dusk or an oily puddle bearing the suggestion of far away cities. The sky puddle is the painting here, a window’s view. The rich depth of the puddle is crafted with the drizzle of dark water color into a whirlpool formation, a tunneling into the painting’s undercurrents. Another railroad. Moreover, the abstract shapes recede, making some patterns, offering a glimpse of a left behind city, flourishing in the margin. The pools that are also somehow portals are perhaps that glimmering otherwise, upsetting what we think we might know about the trace and form of the architectural itself. In other words, once more, the flat matte shapes recede into the right corner of the painting, giving the illusion of a flying being’s view, the venturing into an undisclosed city.

What comes after this miraculous, gorgeous painting, this repeated undecoded assertion of shapes in relation to atmosphere, are two very different pieces. Becoming 20 and Becoming 13 are both line drawings crafted on 12 × 9 inches white paper with the presumptive use of a protractor. While both pictures bear similar black, gouache, horizontal lines at their bottoms, the inked lines radiating from them are mapped at different angles.

In both of these works, there is the trace of private planning, angles which change and whose endpoints are undisclosed. 3 Moreover, both plans indicate some guidance from a baseline blackness, swashed horizontally across the bottom of each drawing in the form of black gouache. Gouache, powerfully, creates a blackness that undulates as water but that comes into wavering materiality out of its formal use of minerals to provide weight and pigment. But regardless of gouache’s formal stilling of the movement of black paint, the undisclosed ends of the plans (the protractor lines directing outward and off the canvas), I think, are what’s crucial here.

Finally, I encountered I Can’t Breathe (Water Table, 2018, Acrylic on Canvas; 96 × 72 inches, 244 × 183 cm, Signed and Dated) as this series of paintings’ denouement (moving from stage right to left across the collection). While there are hard lines creating an abstract black shape in the painting’s center, the blackness is not matte but, as with Umoja, held together by a series of small rectangles and drips of water. In that way, despite its title, the painting is thickly oxygenated. The running of the water, alternately black and white paint, reveals a prior saturation, the feel of rain. Maybe it’s Box Brown’s view from within the fugitivized box or the terroristic constancy of antiblackness Christina Sharpe poignantly characterizes as the weather. But there’s an undecidability to this painting here; the activity and kinesis of precipitation intimates the possibility of ongoing sensation and respiratorial endurance on the one hand while on the other the chalky white lines indicate the inhumanity of what traffics as police procedure. The torrent of the painting swirls as an undifferentiated chorus, where “I can’t breathe” can equally refer to Box Brown’s suffocating, antebellum feat to the last words spoken by Eric Garner on a purportedly postbellum, and just as suffocating, sidewalk. Thinking of the combined genius of Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toni Morrison and Christina Sharpe together here, maybe the painting elucidates time’s impossibility and the endurance of un/just weather. 4


Maybe, Dyson’s painting persists as an aquatic offering to the tired and thirsty fugitive, a place to swim and glide when the inside air runs out. 5


1. Dear Henry was on view at Davidson Gallery (521 W. 26th Street, New York) until 5 May 2018. The author would like to thank the artist Torkwase Dyson for her amazing art and generosity, along with Davidson Gallery, for permission to reprint the art images featured here. Here I thank Charles Davidson and Brittany LoSchiavo (Davidson Gallery, NYC) for their kind and timely attention to my many queries and for sending the images of the art. Just as importantly, I thank Dr. Christina Sharpe, Dr. Jennifer Nash, Dr. Mercy Romero, Dr. J. Kameron Carter, Sarah Richter and the editorial collective of Women and Performance for their generosities of genius, time and energy in reading the review essay and providing feedback and support.

2. The Whitney Museum of American Art describes Dyson’s Water Table Paintings as “transform[ations of] geologic diagrams of underground water systems into abstractions of the earth’s interconnected layers” (Whitney Museum of American Art 2018). Geologically defined, a water table is defined as a region that “below a certain depth, the ground, if it is permeable enough to hold water, is saturated with water. The upper surface of this zone of saturation is called the water table. The saturated zone beneath the water table is called an aquifer, and aquifers are huge storehouses of water” (The USGS Water School 2018).

3. This notion of “private planning” is inspired by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s writings in their book, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013).

4. I refer here to Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016); Denise Ferreira da Silva’s “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World” (2014); Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).

5. The phrasing “tired and thirsty fugitive” used here in relation to Dyson’s art is inspired by Fred Moten’s meditations on Piet Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie and the “lonesome fugitives” communing with/in it (Moten 2009).

Notes on contributor

Sarah Jane Cervenak is an associate professor, jointly appointed in the Women’s and Gender Studies and African American and African Diaspora Studies programs at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her areas of research and teaching are feminist theory, Black studies, performance studies, visual culture and philosophy. Her current book project, tentatively titled Black Gathering: Arts of Ungiven Life queries the Black radical, feminist potential of gathering in post-1970s Black literary and visual arts. In addition to her single and co-authored articles that have appeared in journals such as Feminist Studies, Women and Performance and New Centennial Review, she is the author of Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom (Duke University Press, September 2014). She is also co-editor, with J. Kameron Carter, of the Duke University Press book series, Black Outdoors: Innovations in the Poetics of Study.


Dyson, Torkwase. 2017. “Black Interiority: Notes on Architecture, Infrastructure, Environmental Justice, and Abstract Drawing.” Pelican Bomb.

Ferreira da Silva, Denise. 2014. “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World.” The Black Scholar 44, no. 2: 81–97.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions.

Morrison, Toni. 1987. Beloved. New York: Vintage.

Moten, Fred. 2009. “The Case of Blackness.” Criticism 50, no. 2: 177–218.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “Henry ‘Box’ Brown”.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

USGS: Water Science for Schools. 2018. “Aquifiers and Ground Water.”

Whitney Museum of American Art. 2018. Between the Waters.

Women & Performance