press release

Woody De Othello
Breathing Room
November 1, 2019–April 5, 2020

The San José Museum of Art (SJMA) is pleased to present the first solo museum exhibition of Woody De Othello, an Oakland-based artist who creates colorfully glazed ceramics of anthropomorphized objects. For his new installation, Breathing Room, Othello has re-envisioned the Museum’s gallery as an interior space padded with carpet and filled with large ceramic vessels that sprout arms, eyes, and hands rendered in gestures of both reverence and desperation. At first blush, these objects seemingly respond to the legacy of Bay Area Funk artists like Robert Arneson, Viola Frey, and others. However, Othello, who was born in Miami to a family of Haitian descent, was drawn to clay for its connection to his ancestral roots.

Influenced by postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon’s study of the psychological impact of racism on black bodies, Othello’s vessels are linked by the artist to contemporary nkisi—a type of Central African object or container inhabited by a spirit. As characters, uncanny and alive with personality, they slouch and sag, seemingly exhausted by their own weight and the daily burdens of racial and economic strife. Yet they also absorb energy and trap emotion, containing the traumas of life to offer a moment of repose.

Specifically, the ceramic vessels in Breathing Room are based around a work by Othello, Defeated, depleted, (2018), which was recently acquired in the Museum’s permanent collection. Featuring a dark, richly glazed jug-like form with human arms, hands, ears, and lips in an anthropomorphically suggestive yet non-figurative arrangement, Defeated, depletedrecalls African vessels and reflects the artist’s focused research into his diasporic heritage. Othello’s process also reinforces this influence: he builds up the clay until, burdened by its own heft, it slumps and folds, giving each piece a psychological weight and sense of emotion. He then allows the soft structure to reach a point of equilibrium only to apply more clay. The comedically crumpled and expressive objects embody the artist’s own exhaustion and make visual the physical and emotional fatigue experienced by many African Americans in the US today.

Expanding Othello’s interest in the tension between his sculptures and their environment, these new vessels are held up by ceramic space heaters, vents, and air conditioners—tools for climate control, and a nod to the human desire to filter our surroundings and create a buffer against the outside world. Accompanying the installation are four new paintings on paper, a parallel component of Othello’s practice that offers a diaristic form to explore related ideas. Additional creature comforts, like ceramic light switches and electrical outlets, animate the space. Breathing Room is both literal and figurative—a space alive and full of energy, yet one that offers respite from the stresses of daily life, leaving the artist with room to breathe.

Curated by Lauren Schell Dickens, senior curator

Biography of the Artist
Woody De Othello received a BA from Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton (2013), and an MFA from California College of the Arts (2017), San Francisco. He has had solo exhibitions at Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; Karma, New York; Quality, Oakland; and UFO Gallery, Berkeley, CA. His work has been included in group exhibitions including 33rd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, Slovenia; Bay Area Now 8, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Front International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, Cleveland, Ohio; as well as exhibitions at Alter Space, Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco; Carrie Secrist Gallery, Chicago; Johansson Projects, Oakland; and Sonoma State University Art Gallery, CA. Othello lives and works in Oakland.