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Frieze Writer’s Prize 2018: Announcing the Winner

Dereck Stafford Mangus wins the 2018 prize for his review of Jack Whitten’s exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art

frieze is delighted to announce Dereck Stafford Mangus as the winner of the 2018 Writer's Prize for his review of Jack Whitten’s exhibition ‘Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017’, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. This year’s prize was judged by frieze’s senior editor, Andrew Durbin, writer Billy Kahora and artist Amy Sillman

Andrew Durbin said of the winning entry: ‘As judges, we looked for clear writing that both captured the qualities of an artist’s work and provided the reader with a strong sense of a show. In the short space of a 700-word review of Jack Whitten’s ‘Odyssey: Sculpture 1963–2017’ at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Boston-based writer and artist Dereck Stafford Mangus addressed the aesthetic and historical complexities of a career that spanned six decades without sacrificing a close reading of individual works. Most importantly, he eloquently accomplished what we expect of all good writing: he kept us wanting to know more.’

Frieze Writer’s Prize is an annual international award to discover and promote new art critics. The winner is commissioned to write a review that will be published in frieze and is awarded GBP£2,000.

Andrew Durbin lives in New York. He is the author of Mature Themes (2014) and MacArthur Park (2017), which was a finalist for the 2018 Believer Book Award. He is the US Senior Editor of frieze.

Billy Kahora is a Kenyan writer and editor based in Nairobi, Billy Kahora is the editor of Kwani? journal and has been shortlisted for the Caine prize for his stories ‘Treadmill Love’, ‘Urban Zoning’ and ‘Gorilla’s Apprentice’. 

Amy Sillman is a New York-based artist whose major 2014 solo exhibition ‘One lump or two’ travelled from Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston to Aspen Art Museum, Colorado and the Center for  Curatorial Studies at Bard College, New York. Sillman’s first institutional exhibition in the UK opens at Camden Arts Centre, London, on 28 September.

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Jack Whitten, ‘Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017’
Baltimore Museum of Art, USA
22 April – 29 July, 2018

We stand before a huge picture that suggests an aerial view of urban sprawl – yet this is no regular city. What we see here, from a bird’s-eye view, is a futuristic megalopolis, more organic than orthogonal. It resembles Wakanda’s Birnin Zana, the fictional African home of Marvel’s Black Panther. Only, it’s not: as the wall text explains, this picture is an abstract painting composed of thousands of acrylic paint-tiles, or tesserae, that create an abstract composition which only appears to be a city seen from above. 

The late American artist Jack Whitten created Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant in 2014. It is the final piece in ‘Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017’, recently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art and currently at the Met Breuer in New York. As its subtitle suggests, Odyssey emphasizes the three-dimensional output of the artist since 1963. Whitten, who is known more as a painter, created these works privately while vacationing in Crete with his Greek wife. The sculptures in Odyssey are mostly figurative and reflect Whitten’s interest in traditional forms. Greek artefacts loaned by the nearby Walters Art Museum and several traditional African pieces from the BMA supplement the exhibition. 

 Like the ancient Greek and African works that inspired him, Whitten’s sculptures are not simply formal explorations; they hold meanings and serve functions beyond their role as art objects. A row of wooden sculptures referred to by the wall text as ‘guardians’ protects the members of his family; his ‘containers’ consist of reliquaries with hidden drawers and secret meanings. Many of Whitten’s sculptures blend Western and African traditions, such as The Afro American Thunderbolt (1983–84), a dynamic zigzag of black mulberry wreathed with rusty nails, capped at each end with squarish copper plates. The accompanying text explains that this work was created ‘for the protection and empowerment of all Black people.’ Its blocky, wooden thunderbolt recalls the divine weapon of Zeus, while the embedded nails refer to the nkisi nkondi figures sculpted by central African artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, an example of which stands next to Thunderbolt

To get a fuller picture of Jack Whitten, it helps to travel beyond Odyssey. After exiting the show, we find ourselves in the museum’s Antioch Court, named after the ancient Roman city where its early Christian-era mosaics of animal motifs that line these walls were extracted. The tesserae of Whitten’s Atopolis are echoed here. Rounding the corner, you make your way to the museum’s contemporary wing, where Whitten’s painting, 9.11.01 (2006) is displayed. A dark, cosmological pyramid sits amid swirls of colour. Though technically not part of the exhibition, the work acts as a cultic mirror to the hope and spirit that animates Odyssey, particularly Atopolis.

Whitten, who grew up in the southern US during the Jim Crow period and met Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, travelled widely: he attended art school at the Cooper Union in New York; in the late 1960s he began what would become regular visits to Crete with his wife and daughter; and in 2015, he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of the Arts by President Barack Obama. Whitten passed away this past January at the age of 78. A self-described ‘time traveller’, Whitten’s work has an almost science fictional quality to it, blending the disparate forms and materials of past and present. Perhaps utopia is always out of reach. Odyssey suggests that it's worth striving for anyway.  

Dereck Stafford Mangus is an artist and writer based in Baltimore.

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