8.9.17 — Getting One’s Goat

To pick up my tour of summer sculpture from last time, Nari Ward can really get one’s goat. In fact, he can get about a dozen of them, scattered across Socrates Sculpture Park as if in search of dinner.

None of them look all that frisky, as goats go, perhaps because they lack for grass in a park eternally in need of a new lawn. They bear a heavy burden as well. They carry everything from rough metal spikes to tar and feathers, through September 4. They could be giving off energy or the victims of a lynching. Nari Ward's Xquisite LiquorsouL (Lehmann Maupin, 2009)

As for meaning, too, Ward can get one’s goat. He keeps returning to the theme of role models for young black men. He sought a dialogue with the cops on video, as Fathers and Sons, and displayed burnt oil drums as anything but a call to violence at the 2006 Biennial. Yet he plays the bad boy quite as well as macho white artists, maybe more than ever in the comfort of summer sculpture. He may have no other choice if he wishes to explore the pressures of mass culture without blaming the victim. Besides, artists are supposed to get on one’s nerves.

Ward is on familiar grounds, starting with the work’s title, G.O.A.T., again. He means not just his past, but that of others as well. The acronym stands for “greatest of all time,” as with Muhammed Ali and LL Cool J, and Ward is not dismissing their physical and verbal wizardry—or their pride in African American identity. He does, though, raise challenges. A huge jump rope on the Broadway billboard has the coarseness of knotted fiber, with King imprinted on its handles. It might celebrate a formidable training routine, or it could be reducing culture heroes to overgrown children.

Not that child’s play is unhealthy, especially in art. And Ward, too, is entitled to boast, with the park’s first solo show. He boasts of black culture again with a riff on the marquee of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, much like his riff on a liquor store in “Uptown” at the Wallach Gallery. The blinking letters POLL suggest the need for action where it counts, at the polls. Elsewhere a green mass hangs from a supporting frame like a bell, but in the shape of goat gonads. Both its resonance and its virility have suffered from serious oxidation.

At forty feet, the show’s largest work boasts as well, while attesting to a boast that failed. One more goat head lies at the end of a concrete pole, like the fallen idol of a dead culture—or like the “shattered visage” in “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. As the poem goes, “Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair.” Like Shelley, Ward is enough of an ironist to take those words to heart. The mighty may despair because they will never rise so high—or because they, too, in time must fall so low. Ward got out of the way just in time.

Still, he brings the fall into the realm of play and into the present. A black chandelier hands within a circular shed, like the disco light that failed. And the pole ends with a big wheel, and a handle runs through the goat’s head. Someone might have been using it as a unicycle before falling. In Shelley’s poem, the head has fallen on a wasteland, where “nothing beside remains.” This head is in a park in Queens, where people walk their dogs and come for summer movies—for now, surrounded by a herd of goats.

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