TAC AIR 11 resident Rowan Renee (pronouns: they/them) fell into weaving as an MFA student at the University of Michigan. An independent study course in fibers became a largely self-directed exploration of the loom and resulted in weaving becoming fundamental to their 2019 thesis project. The Parsons graduate knew they wanted to return to New York City and “broaden [their] knowledge” of textiles, particularly weaving. Thus, the Textile Arts Center Artist in Residence program, which begun last fall, seemed like a natural next step.
“I planned to move back and I knew I’d be transitioning back to the city from grad school,” said Rowan, who wrapped up their degree with an intense, immersive installation. No Spirit for Me, which involved lithography, screen-printing, weaving, and metalwork, revolved around their father’s criminal case file, which they acquired from the Florida state prosecutor after his death. It included a re-imagining of more than 1,000 pages from the file as “hanging files.” “[The installation] was a narrative of justice, my narrative, and my family narrative,” they told me during a July 2020 Zoom interview. Rowan was working in TAC’s Brooklyn location that evening, as had become their ritual during lockdown.
“[The installation] was a narrative of justice, my narrative, and my family narrative.”
Rowan came to TAC with a continued focus on their native South Florida and the criminal justice system. Their new project, which will be shown in part at the TAC AIR group exhibition, Subtle Speaks (September 19-28), looks at the historical surveillance and policing of queer identities as told by articles in archival Florida newspapers. Since February 2019, Rowan has used screen printing and weaving to blow up some of these articles for closer inspection and consideration of homophobia and the (mis)representations of homosexuality. These articles “fascinate” the artist as much as they “horrify” them, and have become something of an obsession.
Though Rowan re-located to New York at age 17 for college, they remain attached to Florida, especially South Florida, in much of their work because of its position as such a “culturally difficult” place. “The place you’re from shapes you,” said Rowan, who also explores “difficult” childhood experiences in their practice. Florida is “so new that it has all the worst things Capitalism has to offer,” like malls and cookie-cutter houses, but it is also a place of contradictions. One such contradiction is the state’s negotiation between its Northern and Southern identities. But the more the artist researches state history and policy, the more they can confidently assert that “in terms of its laws and legacy, Florida is absolutely the South.”
The impulse to examine the past, rather than make predictions about the future, allowed Rowan to be fruitful during quarantine. “I’ve had a very productive lockdown,” they said, stating that they spent the first few months of TAC AIR—the residency’s “play period”—working on the knitting machine. But once the time came for residents to concentrate on their personal projects, that’s exactly what Rowan did.
“Time is precious especially for those with very labor intensive practices,” they explained. Rowan’s weavings are indeed large and ambitious pieces that “deal with transparency” and, when hung and made visible in the round as intended, also deal with “how art interacts with the body.” They told me, “the labor of craft is important to me, [as is the] physical committment to the act of making. I use it to make meaning.”
“The labor of craft is important to me, [as is the] physical committment to the act of making. I use it to make meaning.”
Living a 15-minute walk from TAC, whose ample workspace was open to residents during the COVID-19 lockdown, Rowan dedicated themselves to the loom. This was as much due to an already-developed vision for their personal project as it was due to anxiety and disappointment concerning postponed exhibitions. In some cases, it was not clear whether an exhibition was indeed postponed with true hope for a future showing, or actually canceled.
The spring was supposed to be a big one for Rowan. Perhaps most exciting and personally significant was the inclusion of their work in the MoMA PS1 exhibition, “Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” At the time of our Zoom conversation, Rowan did not yet know when, or if, the exhibition would be re-scheduled—which caused much consternation. Since then, and luckily for artists like Rowan and an eager public, MoMA PS1 has announced that the show will be its first exhibition upon reopening after COVID-19 restrictions forced cultural institutions to go on hiatus. Centering incarceration in contemporary art, “Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” will be on view from September 17, 2020 through April 4, 2021.
“The last three months, I’ve spent six days a week at TAC.” And every moment counted.
Rowan said that during NYC’s COVID-19 lockdown, TAC’s founders, Isa Rodrigues and Kelly Valletta, who also run the residency, were “very supportive.” Rowan also credited the other residents for continuing to participate in “big and ambitious conversations” about art and each other’s projects and practices. Isa and Kelly continued running the residency using virtual methods and socially distanced studio time as safely possible for those who lived nearby, like Rowan—and for that, they are grateful. During our July Zoom call, Rowan said, “The last three months, I’ve spent six days a week at TAC.” And every moment counted.
Rowan's work was featured in the Subtle Speaks, TAC AIR 11 Final Exhibition (September 19-28, 2020). Check the online exhibition to see more from this artist.