Lizzi Bougatsos & Lonnie Holley

Never the Same Song

Through September 15
Museum of Fine Arts, St Pete
Details here


Never the Same Song is a contemporary iteration of the idea the Greek philosopher Heraclitus proposed that no person ever steps in the same river twice.

It may also be its philosophical palindrome.

In one direction is a person entering this changing flowing reality – and going the other way is that reality expressed by the person. And the person themself is ever evolving and never the same.

Installation view of works in Performance gallery

This exhibition is a two person show with artists Lizzi Bougatsos and Lonnie Holley curated by independent curator Viva Vadim and the MFA’s Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, Katherine Pill.

Bougatsos’s Untitled (YOKO)

The works are primarily assemblage-style sculptures from found objects  and personal artifacts – materials they have collected over the years. The artists weave in their personal stories in the context of the larger world they’re living in, demonstrating as artists the philosopher stone’s transmutation of base materials.

Installation view into the Performance gallery – on right is Holley’s Caught Up in My Roots, a ladder stuffed with debris, highlighting damage to infrastructure due to environmental events. Metaphorically, this neutralizes the ladder’s function, preventing people in predominately depressed neighborhoods from advancing

The 47 or so pieces are loosely grouped into three categories.

Family Histories

Climate Justice


Installation view of Family History gallery

In the first gallery is Family Histories, personal and intimate pieces, the grounding from which the other works spring.

Holley’s A Different Kind of Picture

Here is Holley’s 1999 piece titled A Different Kind of Picture. Inside a small silver frame is a wire outline of a person’s head in profile with a red rose hovering out beyond the frame.

The exhibition label explains that this piece, inspired by the Black gospel song “Give Me My Flowers,” pays homage to the influential women in his life.

First piece in the gallery of Family History is Holley’s Blackbirds, acrylic on board. Blackbird is also name of song Paul McCartney wrote when he became aware of the plight of Black women in the Civil Rights movement, which Beyoncé covered on her recent album

Holley was taken away from his mother before he was even 2 years old – and it wasn’t until age 15 when his grandmother found and rescued him from the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children that he was reunited with his mother. And when Holley had children of his own, the women in his Birmingham community helped care for them.

In the Family History gallery is Forbidden Kiss on left and She Saw the Change on right. Both by Holley who states – This is memory. Everything is memory. Every face in these paintings. They’re all the people — especially women – that have supported me. Look at that big beautiful eye, My grandmother Mom. My mother Mama. Queens.

In the press preview tour, Holley wonders – Are we considering what is in this flowing water, where does it flow to? I don’t have to cry about something, even giving her flowers while she yet lives, or do I wait until she’s dead and gone, and put a flower in a frame and put a silhouette of her in there…

Curator Vadim in conversation with Holley. Behind them on left is Water Line (Made in America). On right is Fighting for the Harvest – Holley’s interpretation of the biblical passage “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

Along the same wall hang several of Lizzi Bougatsos’s shadow box assemblages, collaged from personal artifacts and heirlooms she has carried through her life.

Is that all there is (SHOWTIME) on left, Shoe Souls at center, Compartmentalized on right – all three by Bougatsos.

There’s a drawer that once held her art supplies, part of a furniture piece built by a member of her family, soles of her ballet shoes within a box within a frame called Shoe Souls, and a tea towel that she spilled coffee on that belonged to her aunt, one who introduced Bougatsos to ceramic.

Bougatsos speaking during the press preview in Performance gallery. Video is of performance with her band Gang Gang Dance

Within these personal displays are also questions about who built America, the bridges – people who came from different countries. She spoke about telling stories that people can relate to, and maybe uplift.

Bougatsos tells the story of The Horn of Sacrifice (North/South), made in Holley’s studio, commemorating the relationship and collaborative aspect of the exhibition

Two Holley sculptures line up in the middle of the floor. Balance (if Nature was the Artist) speaks to the wonders of nature, and how activities of people have impact it, which is a perfect segue into the next gallery – Climate Justice.

Holley speaking during the press preview tour. To his left Katherine Pill, Viva Vadim, Lizzie Bougatsos. The sculpture in foreground is Holley’s Balance (if Nature was the Artist)

Looking around this spacious gallery, it is an assemblage of ideas and realizations, as each of the pieces within it are assemblages of memories, encounters and origins.

Installation view of Climate Justice gallery (L to R) – Holley, Caught Up in My Roots; Holley, Floating at You; (foreground) Bougatsos, Idolize the Burn; Holley, Too Much Water

There’s a chandelier tilted on an architectural plinth with ballet shoes dangling over one side.

On the wall behind are looping razor wires with stuff caught in its cutting points.

Floating at You. Holley sourced the razor wire and detritus along the banks of the Mississippi River, served as a stark reminder of the devastation bought on by Hurricane Katrina on predominantly Black neighborhoods. Imagine you’re escaping the flood waters only to have this razor wire floating in your path.

Next to it on the right is a container with a fire hose coiled up around a drinking fountain.

Leaning against an adjacent wall to the left is a ladder with a flood of flotsam and jetsam clogging the rungs.

Installation view of Climate Justice gallery with Bougatsos’s suspended fans – FAN AWAY II and III

There’s another firehose, anaconda-like, wrapping around furniture frames in the middle of the floor.

Two suspended fans animating the above space.

Holley in front of The Unidentified Laborers – pitchforks in a wooden stand with an X-shaped brace in honor of Malcolm X

Pitchforks on a rack casting distorted shadows.

Several clothing items hang down from the wall.

A wooden door with a galleon ship sailing at its base.

Three cotton on paper compositions, all Robert Ryman-like.

Climate Justice gallery installation view (L to R) – Bougatsos, Untitled (Princess Diana); Holley, Cotton on Paper A, B, C; Bougatsos, The Pillar

A set of boxing gloves inside a bushel basket.

The Statue of Liberty inside an antique battery glass jar half-filled with water.

Couple of watering cans with spouts turning back on themselves.

A bottle rack à la Marcel Duchamp but with shoes.


Each work presents a familiarity, jogging some memory – each comprised of objects we may have used, owned or thrown away at some point.

They now require deep reconsideration seeing them in their new configuration, placement and context. This Climate Justice grouping could have equally been titled Racial and Social Justice.

Holley talking about Without Skin, the piece in the foreground

During the preview tour, Holley walked around the center piece Without Skin, the tangled firehose nailed to un-upholstered furniture stacked and joined together, and spoke of a time quite recent when whites-only water fountains existed, of police using fire hoses to drive back Civil Rights protesters… and the everlasting issue of safe clean water and a fight for access and protection is ongoing in places like Flint, Michigan and Standing Rock in the Dakotas.

With Too Much Water, Holley explores the historical use of water – from segregated water fountains to firehoses used on Civil Rights protestors, to the contamination of water supplies currently in Flint MI, again affecting primarily poor people of color.

Both artists’ art practice also involve performance, as documented in the third gallery.

I had the opportunity to attend a performance Holley gave in September last year at the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery in Fort Myers. It was singularly unique and mountain-moving, with him on electric keyboard singing out his life, this planet – while showing off a wire sculpture with multiple faces he started making earlier that day.

Notebook Bougatsos used to document her conversations with Holley

At the entrance to the gallery is a notebook where Bougatsos recorded her conversations with Holley mixed with sketches while visiting his studio in Atlanta, reflecting over ten years of friendship and collaborations.

Each week of the exhibition, the MFA will turn a page of this notebook. And in August, in collaboration with poets Keifer Calkins, Eleanor Eichenbaum and Tyler Gillespie, they will show pages from the notebook in downtown St. Petersburg’s Poetry Alley.

Installation view of works in Performance gallery

In this gallery’s randomly placed works are two videos showing performances, and props and artifacts from several of Bougatsos’s performances.

Particularly interesting are the five ceramic pieces titled Snake Bowls used to collect water from her ice sculpture performance titled The State of Amerikkka, and Holley’s The Gatherer, a tangle of metal scraps tenuously tied with rope to a cart on wheels.

Snake Bowls used to collect water from Bougatsos’s ice performance The State of Amerikkka

Explanation from the exhibition label – “Holley purchased this bicycle trailer from a man who was collecting scrap metal to earn money to feed his family. Holley saw his own artistic practice reflected in the man’s contraption. They both are accustomed to utilizing what they have, and what others have deemed unworthy, in an attempt to improve the lives of those around them.”

The Opera, bandages from Bougatsos’s recovery process from a fire accident during a performance

Several pieces reference the burns Bougatsos suffered in a 2001 performance when her costume caught fire. The Opera, a framed composition of bandages from her recovery process are abstract forms on a red velvet background that “hints at the interior of a jewelry case.”

FOSSE, references choreographer Bob Fosse, an influence on Bougatsos

The Opera was previously shown in her 2023 exhibition Idolized the Burn: An Ode to Performance, which writer Madeleine Seidel wrote about in Frieze magazine. “By using her personal injury archive as material in these works, Bougatsos asserts authority over her experience, transforming the stained, normally disposed-of skeins of medical-grade fabric into a document of her resilience.”

Beginning a press preview tour, MFA Senior Curator Katherine Pill (far right) introduces the artists Lizzie Bougatsos and Lonnie Holley, and guest curator Viva Vadim (far left)

In a nutshell, this is an exhibition of two extremely different persons discussing humanity in personal and universal perspectives – in its beauty and ugliness, in the unexpected, in sometimes unwanted voices, in ungainly, and in poetic forms.

In all, revealing identities we might see in the mirror.

Detail view of Lonnie Holley’s Without Skin

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