Princess Simpson Rashid is constantly working at an alignment of that which can be quantified, and that which can only be glimpsed. A polymath painter with interests that range from the implications of an empathy-centered society to the possibility of civilian space travel and the ways that money is imaginary, Rashid makes works that evoke the mysteries of science and mathematics.
At this particular point in time, the central question of art being made/shown is a tacit answer to “What did you do during Covid?” Rashid has used this time very productively.
In 2020 she was the artist-in-residence for FSCJ’s Blocktoberfest, hosted a retrospective at FSCJ, was included in the recent Arts Ventures 30th Anniversary Exhibition retrospective at the Cummer Museum, participated in The Nameless Now at the Crisp-Ellert Museum, is making and disseminating videos about her process for social media, and for 2021 she’s working on a large project, The Wonder Wall, for MOSH.
When asked, what, to a certain extent, her goal is, she optimistically answers: “We understand only a small part of our own human story. So my goal is to document my narrative and help others do the same. By always looking back to move forward I realize I don’t want to just go to heaven; I want to go to space.”
Mid-February: It’s the kind of spring day that makes the at-times-deranged Florida feel like a logical place and we’re meeting in Rashid’s CoRK studio. The back door is open, a warm breeze is filtering through, and we’re settling in to talk about her productive 2020 (this weird gift of pandemic time), self-promotion/online presence, and the projects she’s working on next.
“This is my wall of the future,” Rashid says, gesturing to a group of small square abstracts painted with oil sticks. The works have been evolving slowly over the course of about ten months, and they’ve moved away from the bright colors that signify her well-known Super Heavy paintings into moody colors evocative of space; the scumbled, gesturally articulated voids recall the ideas—if not the forms—that undergird painter Mildred Thompson’s works. A feeling of movement that is simultaneously macro and micro, hinting at vibrating, overlapping realities writ in abstract phrasing.
Rashid’s recent print works made under the guidance of Patrick Miko during FSCJ’s Blocktober Fest capture the kind of whirling energy that has antecedents in Abstract Expressionism while also recalling Jack Whitten’s all-over compositions; especially those works dealing with memory, agency, and object. The eight largest of Rashid’s monoprints (36 x 54 inches) are complex: layered with color, gesture, and the painter’s own personal ephemera. They reflect a point in her youth when science and math promised to reveal the secrets of the universe via a study of physics; specifically electro-optics and physical chemistry. More than a performance of nostalgia though, prints like The Peacock Knows the Secrets and The Destruction of the Temple tie into the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter-centered protests. Replete with targets and graphs that are artifacts from Rashid’s undergraduate study of physics and chemistry in relation to nanoscience, the embedded research data simultaneously signify her body of scientific work, and situate themselves on the locus of her body. “I’m trying to get somewhere synthesizing polymathic thinking and empathy,” she says. (For those wondering, her specific thesis research topic as a Ronald E McNair Scholar at Georgia Tech was: “The Nonlinear Index of Refraction of Multilayered Semiconductor Nanoparticles.” She was working towards solving the problem of wholly optical computers.)
Like the aforementioned Heavies, this suite deploys saturated color as a seduction technique. In A Wall Won’t Stop Us, pops of luminous pink are balanced against swaths of saturated blue, that is threaded through with yellow. Short staccato bursts of black and white further energize the surface conveying the feeling of a grand expansion, or a shattered breaking apart captured mid-collapse. The composition is punctuated by sky-blue targets that at a glance evoke labyrinthine forms. These circles, in their tacit and cloudless-sky perfection, bring to mind the skies over Jacksonville as the summer protests took place. Even as they acknowledge state-sanctioned murder of black and brown people.
“Things are only as complex as you make them in printmaking, and technically we didn’t do anything new,” explains Miko of the works’ visual complexity and the printing process. “We just meshed well together and I listened to her and learned to read her thought process in order to facilitate her ideas. This is what a good printer does.”
As Rashid talks about her ongoing projects, it’s clear that there are two central and galvanizing ideas at work. If “the adequacy of art is predicated upon its avoidance of escapism,” as Charles Harrison and Paul Wood asserted in a defense of modern expressionism, then cross-materially Rashid balances clear-eyed archivist sensibilities with a delight in exploration. It’s an experience that is both social and interior.
“The oil sticks [paintings] were supposed to be a ‘cheat’ because the wax content would allow them to dry more quickly and have a greater sense of immediacy,” she explains of her exploration of that material. “But I realized that I have to provide a space for them—and I have such a newfound respect for abstract oil painters because, oh my God! This shit is hard. So I said to myself, ‘I’m going to work in series.’ But when they went to mud level I was like, ‘okay, wait a minute, I’ve got to scrape them, sand them, and do some research.’ Then I repurposed an acrylic painting that wasn’t going anywhere and because it already had paint on it, it had enough surface to catch the oil sticks. So I didn’t have the depressing, devastating, start-from-scratch mud period that I had [with the first ones].”
We’re laughing about the effort it takes to make things look effortless, and then Robert Leedy swings by. He’s misplaced his key fob and is retracing his steps.
The conversation moves from oil sticks and their inherent challenges, to more pragmatic things: the way a dirty studio is indicative of, but not always conducive to work; the demands of being an artist in the early 21st Century; and the safety net that family money affords. The conversation shifts into more esoteric things like empathy, observation, and language. And ultimately art valuation—as in who gets to make art that “matters.”
Rashid, whose recent inquiries have taken her to the sometimes maddening, sometimes enlightening rooms in the Clubhouse app, describes being in spaces and hearing dealers talk about the “pedigrees” of Black artists: did they go to Yale, are they working in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, etc. and how to encourage Black collectors to focus on these artists. “There are a lot of less-curious people making a lot more money than I am. I think artists approach this whole thing wrong. We don’t wanna get rich, but we want to be able to make a living because we provide such a valid service. That is what I think is worth fighting for.”
And, she says, do it with your allies: “Do big things with your friends.”
Reflecting on social media as a tool, Rashid advises: “We need to think about how we’re documenting and containing this information outside of the platform. This is a time to build community and stake a claim. Don’t think about likes and follows, think about documenting your life.” Now, as the conversation has shifted to community, navigating various systems of inequity (health care specifically), and making allies across divides, Rashid reflects that “empathy is the key to everything.”
“But what about greed?” poses Leedy as he settles into a seat: it’s time to tackle big, knotty ideas.
“Empathetic thinking is a counter to greed,” she replies. “Because humans like slavery. Whatever we do, we try to make slaves. And greed is a parasite that attaches to our worst nature. Empathy improves humanity, but it is a hard sell; so you do it one person at a time and start with yourself.”
Starting over as a method is, like empathy, grounded in hopefulness and connectivity: those hard to articulate notions perhaps best glimpsed in snatches, like color threaded through a field of data, or quietly encoded into an unexpected studio visit turned meaningful meditation.
This Arts Profile originally appeared under the heading “Vibrating, Overlapping Realities” in Void Magazine’s April 2021 issue.