Kriston Capps, Washington City Paper
Many minds lurk behind Renée Stout’s work. Over the years she has summoned mystics and mediums to guide her bewitching paintings and sculptures. Stout’s alter egos include a rootworker named Dorothy, a fortune-teller named Madame Ching, and an herbalist named Fatima Mayfield—essences who channel different facets of the artist’s personality and process. Her latest body of work teases out the same mystery that she’s been weaving for years, but this time around, Stout left her fellow travelers behind. Anger is her totem instead.
When 6 Is 9: Visions of a Parallel Universe, Stout’s expansive solo show at Hemphill Fine Arts, is a cauldron of fire and fury. Blood flows and numbers swirl in paintings that appear to be willing a different path into existence. Her rage is specifically political: “Sun-Ra & Posse Put Pence in Check” (2018), a graphite drawing of Sun Ra, the cosmic bandleader, versus Mike Pence, the gay-bashing vice president, sets the mood for the show. A Cryptkeeper-esque Pence looks like he’s going up in a cloud of vape smoke emanating from the glowing empty eye socket of a black cowboy. Pure fan-girl wish fulfillment colors Stout’s fantasy.
Other contours of Stout’s brave new world are harder to follow. Stout establishes her parallel universe through abstraction, numerology, and private allusion. In fact, Stout offers a key to her exhibit, a sketch that explains figures such as Damballa and Aida Wèdo, twin serpent loa (or spirits) in voodoo. She outlines Elegba, the Yoruba god of messages and portals, and lays out his veve, a cosmogram that symbolizes him in Nigeria and across the diaspora. Stout’s key even unpacks the show’s title—it’s a nod to Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”—but anyone looking for explicit guidance may not get much further.
Unwieldy and opaque but still satisfying, When 6 Is 9 is far from an allegory. That’s important for viewers to understand: Stout’s parallel universe isn’t a clean literary departure from our own, like Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Stout’s alternate dimension feels more like lore, a puzzle she is solving by piecing together elements of her private mythology, from Aretha Franklin to an animated Baoulé mask. The show makes clear that Stout herself feels like a guest here. “What I Saw in the Parallel Universe” (2017) is a text drawing that reads like a recounted dream. “Damballa was coiled around a cloud.” “John Brown, apparently still raisin’ holy hell, was in a deep discussion with Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, and Shirley Chisholm.”
A series of sculptures that Stout calls “passports” helps to convey that this work is personal and personally felt—not merely lofty, Tolkien-esque backstory told through an Afro-futurist lens. Four of the five “passport” pieces are old-school flip phones, on which she’s attached graphite drawings of various friends or loved ones. “Passport #12” (George)” (2018) features art dealer George Hemphill’s mug. “Passport #9” (Kevin)” (2013) appears to be an elaborate handheld radio. These phone-a-friend lines might be tethers to this world for when she finally passes over or tools that ease her passage.
Danger abounds in When 6 Is 9. Erzulie Yeux Rouge—one aspect of Erzulie, the name for a family of loa in voodoo, it gets complicated—appears as a portrait of a black woman with dreads and blood-red irises. “Erzulie Yeux Rouge, the Empath [Erzulie Red Eyes]” (2018) is the only realist figure painting in a gallery filled with abstraction. “Blood Beast vs. Haint Blue” (2017) refers to the shade of blue that some southerners use to paint porch ceilings in order to ward off ghosts in Gullah folktales. Other abstractions, namely a series of paintings that Stout calls “escape plans,” lend an element of scientism to the artist’s fantasy by introducing the grid. Figures scrawled all over “Obatala Sent the Coordinates” (2018) might be futuristic formulas or arcane nonsense.
Some of Stout’s paintings need no explanation. “Blood in the Land Not Yet Dry” (2018) and “Blood Still Spilling” (2018) speak squarely to the violence and oppression that African-Americans still face. “Rearranging My Molecules to Deal with this Bullshit (Study)” (2016) is self-care that takes the form of pseudo-scientific atmospheric abstraction. “Red House in Black Rain (for Jimi Hendrix)” (2017)—a painting of a floating heart inside a house-shaped form, which seems to be made of fire, rain, blood, smoke, and tears all at once—is a punch in the stomach.
“In past shows, Stout has showcased the symbols of Santería for their visual impact. Bottles from the botánica or the neon of the fortuneteller’s window were elements in her visual vernacular. Stout is on another level now. “Escape Plan D, With High John Root (Connecting the Dots)” (2018) is a collage combining a drawing of High John the Conqueror root, a hoodoo essential, with fragments of numbers and a paranoid diagram. Instead of an object, she is depicting a process. Instead of highlighting the parts of spells, it’s more like she’s casting them.
When 6 Is 9 belongs to an Afrosurrealist conversation spanning decades, from Léon Damasand the Négritude movement of the 1930s to Sun Ra and his Arkestra and the cosmic rebirth that is yet to come. Maybe Stout is looking for a pocket dimension, an escape from our contemporary horrors, a hideout, a break. But she’s building a much bigger world.