Set It Off: Stunning New Exhibition at the Parrish

Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas, in front of work by Torkwase Dyson in "Set It Off" at the Parrish Art Museum
Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas, in front of work by Torkwase Dyson in “Set It Off” at the Parrish Art Museum
Jon Jenkins

There is something extraordinary happening at the Parrish Art Museum. Even the much-revered natural light on the East End seems to be in on it.

Streaming through a window in the museum’s center gallery on a Thursday morning in Water Mill, the light — that magical light that has attracted so many artists (and non artists) out east — is projecting a piercing glow on an already-glowing, newly-installed sculpture by Kennedy Yanko titled “In the Whole World Together” — as if to say, “Look what we’ve got here.”

The show-stopping pieces by Yanko feature crushed aluminum and undulating paint skin that oozes with sensuality; they literally make you want to break all gallery rules and touch what looks like poured liquid gold. Or cool teal-blue.

Around the corner, in another gallery, a series of February James’ haunting portraits stare you down, commanding your attention and interpretation.

The pieces are part of more than 50 captivating works (paintings, sculpture and installation) by a roster of international female artists — Leilah Babirye, Torkwase Dyson, February James, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Karyn Olivier, and Kennedy Yanko — in the new exhibition Set It Off, curated especially for the Parrish Art Museum by Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas, collectively known as Deux Femmes Noires, and currently running at the Parrish through July 24.

Kennedy Yanko — "Untitled" (2022) in Set It Off at the Parrish Art Museum
Kennedy Yanko — “Untitled” (2022)Jon Jenkins, Courtesy of the Artist

“The ability to get these six incredible women in a space like the Parrish — the architecture here, the light, the location, the time of year which means the amount of eyes that will be set on their practice — it’s really important and I think it will draw a larger audience to their work,” says Chevremont, a sought-after art consultant, adviser, and collector who, along with Thomas, a multidisciplinary artist and innovator (she recently debuted her global exhibition to critical acclaim), form Deux Femmes Noires.

The two have been working in tandem (this is their third curatorial project) to launch careers and give artists a serious platform — particularly female artists of color.

“Every artist in this show has major projects that are about to drop, simultaneously when this show is up,” emphasizes Thomas.

The fact that we feel the need to point out that this exhibition is curated by two women of color and features six artists, all women, and all women of color, drives home the obvious — the art world is “still (a) male, white dominated,” arena, confirms Chevremont.

That clearly hasn’t stopped Deux Femmes Noires. In fact, it seems to fuel their mission.

February James — "These Are My Ghosts to Sit With" (2022)
February James — “These Are My Ghosts to Sit With” (2022)Victor Miranda

“It’s exciting that we are given some of these opportunities because we take full advantage of them,” says Chevremont, “And bringing forth women of color and (in some cases) queer artists — that’s the group that gets the least representations in institutions,” she adds.

The team’s combined experience from the perspective of both the artist (Thomas) and the institution (Chevremont) helps serve their vision.

“We just say, ‘This is what we need for the artists’ — we’re as equally invested as the artist showing,’” Thomas says with conviction.

So what attracts them to a piece of art, and in particular, to the works in this show?

When we see artists creating their own language,” Chevremont says. Thomas quickly builds on that thought: “They are all taking risks and being innovative and challenging themselves within the art,” she says. “They want the audience to engage and really think … it’s not something that is just aesthetically pleasing,” Chevremont adds with a laugh. “They want to create work that makes a statement.”

Sitting across from Thomas and Chevremont in the Parrish’s conference room as they talk about art and this show is like watching bold paint being applied in rich layers across a wide canvas. Never boring. Always dynamic. They are so in sync that they often add to, or finish, each other’s sentences.

February James — "These Are My Ghosts to Sit With" (2022)
February James — “These Are My Ghosts to Sit With” (2022)Victor Miranda

“All of these artists (in the show) are practitioners … they have all been working for a very long time,” says Thomas.

“And we’ve been around a long time,” adds Chevremont. The two first met in 2003 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Thomas was a resident artist.

“She (Chevremont) was actually one of my first collectors,” recalls Thomas, who makes time for their creative projects in between her personal shows. (Thomas’ next big exhibition of her work will be at Muée de l’Orangerie in Paris.)

Chevremont, who also curates artwork for well-known television and film projects and maintains a longstanding modeling career, says this exhibition at the Parrish “is really a passion project.”

How do they think Set It Off will be received? A chance encounter with “a gentleman from a local school” who walked into the Parrish during the installation may provide a clue.

“It was interesting,” recalls Chevremont. “He said, ‘Oh my God, I cannot wait to get my students in here, because this is huge.’ And he was like, ‘We have such a diverse community within the school — that the children are going to just lose their minds!”

The team plans to come out east from the city “as often as we can, while the show is up.” They are clearly excited about their stable of artists and taken with the Parrish itself — the architecture, the landscape, “even that it is predominantly run by women,” adds Thomas. And yes, the light.

“It’s just breathtaking,” says Thomas, “and how it shifts during the day … I think it elevates the work to such a level and I wish all institutions had the opportunity to have this type of architecture and lighting for spaces.”

Leilah Babirye — "Tuli Mukwano (We Are in Love)" (2018, wood, wax, metal, screws, bolts, washers, wire, found objects)
Leilah Babirye — “Tuli Mukwano (We Are in Love)” (2018, wood, wax, metal, screws, bolts,
washers, wire, found objects)
Jon Jenkins, Collection Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg

The Meaning of ‘Set It Off’ at the Parrish

As for their take on the show’s title?

Chevremont: It’s a statement: Set it Off — make noise, be loud!

Thomas: We’re here! (They laugh.)

Chevremont: We cannot be denied!

Thomas: It’s not about having people validating us, we’re validating ourselves by staking our claim. Period.

Set It Off presented by the Parrish Art Museum and curated by Deux Femmes Noires: Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas, runs through July 24 at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill. For more info, visit parrishart.org.

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