Artist vanessa german on Mining the Poetic Power of Rose Quartz

Her new series makes its debut with Kasmin Gallery at Frieze Los Angeles.

vanessa german, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Self-taught and self-termed citizen artist vanessa german is widely known for her sculptural works that feature poetic collections of both found objects and meticulously sourced materials. In her newest body of work she has turned her attention to one material in particular: rose quartz.

Immediately recognizable by its distinct pink hue, the crystal speaks to several ongoing threads of inquiry that german has continuously traced in her practice, including ancestral wisdom, indigenous knowledge, cultural ecosystems, and spirituality. Comprised of more than a dozen pieces, the series has its debut in a solo presentation with Kasmin Gallery at Frieze Los Angeles this week.

vanessa german, left to right: HOPE (2024), THE BOOMBOX (2024), THE WEEPER (2024). © vanessa german. Photo: Charlie Rubin. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

“Like any body of work, I feel it’s connected to whatever came before it in some ways,” german mused when asked what inspired this material focus on a video call. And what came before was a monumental solo exhibition at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum between 2022 and 2023, “The Rarest Black Woman on the Planet Earth.”

That show was intended as a response to the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum, a 20th-century collection and veritable cabinet of curiosities at the school. In addition to physically touching every` object in the museum’s collection, german reached out to the Mount Holyoke community—”which is anybody, from the people who deliver packages to the janitor, student, faculty, deans—everyone,” she said—with a series of prompts about the idea of emancipation.

She received an outpouring of anonymously written words and personal belongings, which german used to craft a range of her signature “power figure” sculptures and other works in the installation MUSEUM OF THE EMANCIPATORY OBJECTS. One such object given by a member of the community was a pair of knee-high riding boots, which german “crystalized” with rose quartz. Ultimately, this led to the museum’s acquisition of 30 pounds of rose quartz crystals, which were handed out to visitors of the exhibition.

Installation view of “vanessa german: The Rarest Black Woman on the Planet Earth” (2022–23). Courtesy of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.

Born out of this project, german’s investigation into the pink mineral expanded. “I came into the relationship with rose quartz as this pink stone that is symbolic of love. And then I found out that there were civilizations that used quartz specifically to store the records of their civilization. They were used as a kind of technology. Talking to people who use crystals medicinally, I also learned about mother’s love, the force of love, that holds the universe together,” german said.

Reflecting on Western hegemony in terms of what is considered “real” or “not real,” the medium of rose quartz was no longer just a common crystal, but symbolic of an incredible breadth of human history and culture. Using the material in her work gave german an opportunity to learn about and build off traditions outside of Western dualities.

vanessa german, skateboard memorial to tyre nichols who screamed out for his own mama to come for him while the police were jumping on his back and taking his name out of his soul and making him dead with their own looseness of being and in the brutality of this separation unaliving him for no reason other than_________. Well. Or, skateboard as grief. (2023). © vanessa german. Photo: Charlie Rubin. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

This background directly feeds into the first piece german created for the rose quartz series, a skateboard with a title that explains its core inspiration—the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis in January 2023. german uses the healing element of rose quartz as a primary medium to approach a historical moment of extreme grief and trauma, creating a powerful and poignant meditation on the event and its collective emotional impact.

“When Tyre Nichols was being killed, he kept crying out for his mother. And I imagine that if his mother could have instantly materialized herself on that spot to save her child’s life she would have. Or through the massive creative force of her love for her child, she would have created some protection device to have kept her child alive,” german said. “But that obviously is not a technology that she had available to her. That really was a way for me not be suffocated by the strange grief that comes when mourning for the life of somebody that I did not know personally.”

Nichols was a hobbyist skateboarder—a Tyre Nichols Memorial Skatepark opened in Sacramento in June 2023, with a second location in Memphis breaking ground this year—and this memorial object focuses on the person he was. “I did this entire skateboard in rose quartz because it is like the crystallized mineral form of the kind of love that holds the entire universe together,” german added. “It’s related to the power of creativity, but it’s also always related to the largest expression of it, of motherhood and nurturing.”

vanessa german, 727 KNOTS: THE PINK DRESS (2024). © vanessa german. Photo: Charlie Rubin. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

Also premiering at Frieze are a series of rose quartz sculpted heads beside a large-scale assemblage figure. Across the works, themes of love, healing, and reclamation are pervasive. Marking the 50th anniversary of hip-hop last year, german also turned her attention to iconic figures of the genre, creating rose quartz portraits of well-known artists—but without specifically naming them. “If you are into hip-hop, you’ll recognize the references,” she said.

The complexity of each work conveys german’s now near-encyclopedic knowledge of the mineral. Acquiring such large volumes and wide varieties of the gemstone required creative sourcing. “One of the things I first had to do is find a way to get as much material as I could,” she recounted. “When you see the work, it’s a lot of rose quartz, but it’s a variety of cuts. Most of the rose quartz I’m using came from Brazil and Madagascar… And then I’m using beads that are formed into their shape from India, and then China. And then, very little, I have used those that are laser cut because it’s very expensive. From New York, there’s a particular wholesaler where they had some special old rose quartz, and I bought it all.”

vanessa german, GRIEF AND LOVE AND GRIEF AND LOVE AT THE SAME TIME (2024). © vanessa german. Photo: Charlie Rubin. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

Working with gemstones as a medium might take up more of german’s practice in the future, inspired by her love of working with rose quartz—which she says she will continue to use. In the sculpture GRIEF AND LOVE AND GRIEF AND LOVE AT THE SAME TIME (2024), for example, a larger head made of rose quartz is adorned with a smaller head placed horizontally atop it, made from a combination of lapis lazuli and sapphire. In other works, mouths are formed from strawberry quartz, ruby, and garnet—the “passion stones,” according to the artist. Pyrite and jade also make an appearance. Together, these experiments mark an exciting moment in the trajectory of german’s practice.

When asked what type of experience she hopes viewers have witnessing the works at Frieze LA, german said, after a brief pause, “I would hope that the work slows people down.” Amidst the hubbub that is a major art fair, german’s series of glistening works full of complex meaning and references may even stop you in your tracks.

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