Charisse Pearlina Weston: Black Resistance within the Fold
Charisse Pearlina Weston is a conceptual artist working across mediums such as photography, sound, writing, and glass sculpture, and who is “thinking within the lineage of conceptualism in a very specific way.” She stated this while talking with me at Studio Museum 127, a space offered for use as part of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Artist-in-Residence program.
The precarity of her glass sculptures was evident as I attempted not to collide with them. This, of course, is intentional. The viewer is conscious of how they move through space around her sculptures and, by extension, how space and architecture, which are shaped by systems of antiblackness, restrict Black mobility. Weston’s work references the broken windows theory, which states that visible signs of disorder such as broken windows, loitering, or graffiti encourage crime. This line of thinking resulted in the hyperpresence of police in low-income and Black neighborhoods as a means of surveilling Black people’s movements through space, eventually forming the reasoning for racial profiling techniques such as stop-and-frisk in New York City.
Weston’s work structurally activates what seems invisible—blocking, stalling, and shifting motion—recalling both the surveillance of policing and historical modes of Black resistance that stop movement as a means of protest. Many of her works utilize sheets of glass balancing in or on another piece of glass, concrete, or lead. Weston emphasizes her choice of working with glass for its conceptual capabilities. She says, “What I’m hoping to do with my work is raise questions around the aspects of daily life that we do not pay attention to or that we assume are natural conditions of existence. My hope is that raising these lines of inquiry moves the needle, at least on the level of the symbolic, toward another way of being in the world. I think artists have a unique impact on the symbolic, which ultimately governs how the world is seen and understood. That’s where we can put pressure.”
Weston’s work structurally activates what seems invisible— blocking, stalling, and shifting motion—recalling both the surveillance of policing and historical modes of Black resistance that stop movement as a means of protest.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Weston studied art history for both her undergraduate degree and her first master’s degree, all while maintaining a painting practice. After finishing school in Scotland, Weston returned to Houston where she began making installation work at spaces like Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses, a site of structures that host art and community programs. In one of her earlier installations, Travelin’ Man (2015), Weston displayed prints referencing the Bayeux Tapestry, a canonical work that depicts events from the 1066 Norman conquest of England. 1 For her prints, Weston replaced the subject of the historical tapestry with the movement and displacement of Black people from the Third Ward to the southwest of Houston during the 1970s, 80s, and present gentrification. Interests in geographical and architectural histories of Black people continue to sustain Weston’s practice.
Feeling that installation art favored her more than painting, Weston went back to school to get an MFA in studio art with a critical theory emphasis from the University of California-Irvine. This would be her third and most recent degree. There, she deeply engaged with theories such as Afropessimism and with scholars including Nahum Chandler, Jared Sexton, and Frank B. Wilderson III. “Working with these important scholars gave me the historical and theoretical language to better articulate the themes that were motivating my work in relationship to Black life and Black experience. It was already there in the work, but I didn’t have the theory to express it fully.”
Weston works with kiln-fired glass, often using molds to form the material into certain shapes. While in the kiln, there is a small window of time when she can further manipulate the molten glass. Part of the allure of glass is the possible accidents that might happen in the kiln, whether a piece shatters or forms into an unexpected shape. At the center of her practice is a focus on blackness and Black interior life. Through the use of manipulated glass and lead, obscured photograph transfers, partly legible semi-autobiographical writing, and photographic prints of unintentional breaks and cracks in her glass pieces, Weston withholds. With blackness being defined by the hypervisible consumption and surveillance of it, she explores concealment as an act of resistance. By intentionally obscuring a person’s view of the subjects in her work, Weston explores how Black people manipulate spaces formed by anti-Blackness into opportunities for resistance.
For Weston, glass proves to be a potent material to explore these complexities. It is at once a transparent material that allows for surveillance and access and an architectural barrier that keeps people and assets sequestered from those presumed to be criminal or unworthy (think of a well-paid executive in a high-rise looking out of floor-to-ceiling windows onto those outside the building). As a fragile material, glass points to the precarity of Black life in the face of white supremacist violence. Its malleability speaks to how anti-Black violence shapes space, people, and how those people move through space. Then, how does Black interiority formed under this violence allow room for struggle against it?
Often, her work explores this question through research based on Black spatial politics in a certain geographical area. For her solo show at the Queens Museum, of [a] tomorrow: lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust (2022–23), Weston used the political histories of Black resistance in the borough as a framework for the exhibition. She specifically references a proposed 1964 stall-in, in which hundreds of cars would be stalled on highways leading to that year’s New York World Fair, presently the grounds of the Queens Museum and Corona Park. The protest was meant to consider how white supremacy constrains Black life. Similarly, Weston’s installation, sculptures, and prints assess the stall as a tactic.
Including previously mentioned scholars and ideas, Weston references the lived experiences of Black people in built environments; Black critical theorists such as Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe; art history; French critical theory; and the blues. Weston reads the blues as an expression of Black interior life. “It shows up a lot in the way I think about text, writing, and poetics as forms and methods of resistance within my practice. There are certain songs that articulate an interior life that I think folks probably weren’t able to make legible in another way.” Additionally, she has cited James A. Snead’s thinking on repetition in Black culture. Using its musical definition, Snead describes the “cut” as an abrupt break in continuity. This abruptness could be seen as an accident or surprise. He states that the use of the “cut” in Black cultures acknowledges discontinuity— the fact that no culture is one singular thing— by not repeating it as much as restaging or reincorporating it. 2 A similar reincorporation occurs in Weston’s work when collapsed sculptures are displayed or when glass fragments are reused to etch at photographic prints.
True to her practice, Weston has developed a body of work during her Studio Museum in Harlem residency focused on anti-Black architectural and urban planning practices across Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, continuing her engagement with the broken windows theory and its aesthetic presence. As Weston comes to the end of the residency in November 2023, she will be a 2023–24 Hodder Fellow at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University where she will continue her research on surveillance and Black interior life through the examination of zombie laws. 3
What is Black interiority when Black people and Black spaces are rendered hypervisible, always under surveillance? What does it look like, and what can we learn from it? How does opacity struggle against transparency? And how do we reincorporate the cultural breaks and cuts into culture? Weston sees these questions as aesthetic, spatial experiences that work on material and symbolic levels. She thus works conceptually to examine their answers across access, space, and resistance.
1 This conquest began the over one-hundred-year occupation of England by William the Conqueror of Normandy, then a region in Northwest France, and his heirs. The conquest resulted in profound political changes for England, and by extension Western Europe.
2 For more, see James A. Snead’s 1981 essay “On Repetitions in Black Culture.”
3 Zombie laws are laws that are no longer in effect but remain “on the books.” They have the potential to be reanimated whenever the law that overrode them is struck down. This became particularly relevant for the 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
See more at www.cambridge.org/core/journals/cambridge-quarterly-of-healthcare-ethics/article/abortion-and-zombie-laws-who-is-accountable/9805B907DE552AAB0A41D916688B62D6.