168 Paul Verdell

Born in Long Beach, CA, 1991/ BA, Bowling Green State University/ Lives in Detroit

In “All Falls Down,” arguably one of the best singles Ye has released, he raps, “We tryna buy back our 40 acres…” Thematically, the song is about a plethora of issues, such as the inherent sadness of loss, the false promise of the “American dream,” insecurities faced by Black people, and Eurocentric ideas of beauty. But in that simple line, derived from General Sherman’s 1865 Field Order that formerly enslaved people would receive 40 acres of confiscated Confederate land and a mule, Ye focuses on potential, and a desire to rebuild. In doing so, he touches upon the importance of hope and making space for speculative fictions, for narratives to unfold, and for people to dream.

Abstract painter Paul Verdell creates a similar sense of hope, speculation, and physical landscapes in his recent body of work, titled 40 Acres, shown at Detroit’s Library Street Collective in the fall of 2022. His paintings often reflect a consistent green, yellow, and blue palette. Still, some of his works, such as Remnants and Discourse (both 2022), break away from this color convention, with Remnants containing broad, thick hues of brown and lilac, and Discourse containing orange, red, and black tones, with glimpses of the canvas showing through. Like the German Expressionists, Verdell shares that these limited color palettes are meant to reflect emotions while also being open to interpretation.

“The hand” is apparent and important in Verdell’s work. His paintings contain strong gestures created by heavy brushstrokes and paint applied with spackle knives and oil sticks. In addition to the presence of his hand in the work, Verdell also makes his own paints, boiling down pigments to liquid form and then pouring them into a mold to freeze. Working in this way is liberating for Verdell. It enables him to explore and navigate the paint across the surface of his works, which is fundamental in Verdell’s research and investigation of the medium. Creating layer upon layer, Verdell turns the painting into a topographical surface, with moments where the paint is physically coming out of it. These moments draw the viewer in to explore the physical and compositional content of the work.

To encounter Verdell’s paintings in this way is to be transported inward to a metaphysical realm in which the viewer is engulfed in environments and landscapes devoid of humans. This lack of human presence creates a sense of freedom, enabling the audience to be inquisitive and playful as they explore the dimensions of the work. To study his paintings is to encounter perspectives like a bird’s eye view, perhaps a horizon line, geological landforms, bodies of water, and even environmental disasters.

Even before knowing the titles of Verdell’s work, the viewer can draw conclusions and create narratives from the abstract imagery. For example, Lazy River (2022) evokes a body of water in a landscape. To stay with the painting and follow the weight and gestures of the paint strokes, one can read the blue tones as water, and the green and rust colors as grass and soil. One can feel the movement of the water as it reaches the riverbank and pushes back off into the river.

Another interesting work is A Road to Glory (2022). The imagery reads as a warm, crimson sun setting in the distance over a hilly green pasture. There is a darkness in the foreground that simultaneously acts as an attractive and repellent force. Adding in the title’s connotation, the viewer cannot help but wonder where the road to glory will take them, and how long and difficult the journey will be.

Placing oneself in Verdell’s recent body of work and creating these speculative narratives is both liberating and rewarding. The work brings pleasure in a non-perverse voyeuristic manner. Leisure, rest, and peace are concepts that marginalized people, especially Black people, are often not afforded. To be engulfed by these landscapes and to be able to engage in this form of enjoyment, even if in a metaphysical realm, is very pleasurable.

Chelsea A. Flowers, May 2023

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