ON VIEW THRU APRIL 7, 2024: Nathaniel Donnett’s multimedia works in “Dark Matter, Dark Energy, Dark Imaginarence” at Texas Southern University consider how people navigate space and time through nonlinear trajectories as they explore material and immaterial worlds—and ask how abstraction reflects our realities while offering multiple ways to perceive them. Donnett examines the role imagination plays in contending with obstacles in our lives that manifest as systemic limitations, but also constitute nuanced moments of discovery.
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The exhibition takes inspiration from the life of Ed Dwight, a former Air Force pilot who almost became the first Black astronaut to enter outer space but was denied because of sociopolitical interference and racial hostility. He later reimagined himself and became a sculptor. Following that path, Donnett’s works— textiles, sculpture, installation, sound, video, and, importantly, community engagement in the form of a backpack exchange with students from historic Black neighborhoods in Houston (Third Ward, Sunnyside, Acres Homes, Fifth Ward)—combine the unknown and the embodied to search out Black cosmologies and material constellations that act as poetics, prompts, processes, and presentations for lived transformation.
Donnett approaches his practice through the lens of Dark Imaginarence, a concept of art, everyday aesthetic theory, and notion(s) of Blackness that creates through abstraction and representation while forever remaining influx and experientially poetic. The exhibition also reflects on theories concerned with fugitivity, spatial understanding, and becoming: Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which describes the house as a shelter and universe allowing for dreaming and protection; Fred Moten’s notion of enclosure and the surround, a psychological entrapment caused by social precarity; and Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopias, an engagement with the plurality of space and time.
For example, the centerpiece of the exhibition, Staring at infinity through the corners of asymmetry (2023), uses reclaimed materials— foil, house paint, fabric, earring studs, light—to recreate a home that references geometries, histories embedded in the architecture’s exterior, and expansive galactic dreams on its interior.
Donnett’s process is as much philosophical as it is musical—and concerned with how everyday actions and common materials hold memories and serve as witnesses to lived experiences. His recent works suggest the art studio is everywhere and that the creative or imaginative mind is constantly active, yet not always recognized. They investigate tensions between the rational and the irrational, as a route for accessing generative ways of moving, thinking, and living hidden within our subconscious that might help us reframe and redefine ourselves—and negotiate life’s constraints. Dark Matter, Dark Energy, Dark Imaginarence asks: What could happen if we changed our questions from “What is the sum of two plus two?” to “What is the sum of two plus a spaceship, divided by Earth, Wind & Fire’s song ‘Devotion,’ multiplied by the first half of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris?”
Nathaniel Donnett’s (b. Houston, TX) interdisciplinary practice shapes and holds open spaces of phenomenological and metaphysical significance. Utilizing sourced and reclaimed objects, Donnett approaches ideas of materiality through concepts of Blackness, everyday aesthetic theory, and encoding strategies. Donnett received his BA in Fine Arts from Texas Southern University and his MFA from Yale University School of Art. He is a recipient of the 2024 American Academy of Rome Affiliated Fellowship, a 2022 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Dean’s Critical Practice Research Grant and Social Justice Initiative Grant, both from Yale (2020). His work has been exhibited at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AK; The Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond, VA; Project Row Houses, Houston, TX; The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, Virginia Beach, VA; The American University Museum, Washington, D.C.; The University Museum at Texas Southern University, Houston, TX; The Kemper Contemporary Arts Museum, Kansas City, MO; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX; and The New Museum, New York, NY.