12.8.17 — Trigger Warnings

Nina Chanel Abney comes with a warning. Given the necessity of Black Lives Matter, make that a trigger warning. That could explain the choice of signs that Abney has adapted many times over for a two-gallery show of paintings, at Mary Boone through December 22 and at Jack Shainman through December 20. Get help, one painting screams in capital red letters. MutualArtGet first aid right away, runs another. Trouble comes when you delay!

Trouble is coming anyway, and Abney is a worthy troublemaker. The works at her first gallery stick to a poster format, right down to their flat renderings, routine fonts, and plain, slim frames—and then she messes them up in all sorts of ways. The fonts may shift even within a line, and their message may veer off just as suddenly as well. Someone has added text here and there or effaced it, and it is hard to know which amid so many cross-outs and underscores. They could show off a graffiti artist or an ingenious designer. The frequent X-marks could stand for further erasure or love and kisses.

Color runs wild, too, from bright backgrounds to a colorful cast of characters. Even those frames contribute with their mix of black, green, red, and blue. Most of all, the message keeps changing before one’s eyes. A black couple walks their dogs in sunlight, but the silhouette of another creature lies below them, RIP. Nina Chanel Abney's Fruit of the Womb (Mary Boone gallery, 2017)It’s great to be alive, another work announces above joyful or angry birds and an athlete literally tied in knots. Yet a cross-out has either upped the ante from be alive to live—or else paused for a moment in the middle of denying life.

Characters are running around in swim trunks, showing off, supporting one another, or breathing a sigh of relief—but one, the text explains, lies under a truck, one will have to spend a month in the hospital, and another is crippled for life. The ambiguities extend from the message to its audience as well. One painting could be preaching mutual respect or every man for himself, with watch out for the other guy! But then the paired signs beneath for uh oh black and oh no blacks could remind blacks to watch out for the cops or whites to watch out for who is taking over the neighborhood. Both, of course, are signs of racism aimed at African Americans, but the paintings speak more of joys and sorrows than of anger or fear. They are too alive, too aware of the hormones in her largely male cast, and way too busy messing things up.

The poster style, dry humor, and grim politics recall Barbara Kruger as well as black artists concerned for police killings like Sanford Biggers, Carl Post, and Arthur Jafa (and I have added this to previous reports on Biggers and others as a longer review and my latest upload). Like her, Abney turns appropriation into a signature style. Kruger should receive credit if not a copyright fee every time an ad overlays text in bands of red—and for all I know she does. Abney, though, has another model, too. The X‘s, O‘s, overlapping color fields, and sheer exuberance recall Stuart Davis. Her WOW here and there shares his amazement at that.

She approaches Davis all the more in her second gallery, where her posters give way to murals. His thoroughly American Cubism anticipates Pop Art, and she is both looking around her and looking back. These paintings run denser and even wilder, with men crowding in and strutting their stuff. They take place in the here and now of a 99¢ store, but also in the belligerence of the imagination. The curator, Piper Marshall, moves from the first gallery’s “Safe House” to the second’s “Seized the Imagination.” Abney still, though, has her signature X—and, here and there, a determined NO.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

10.12.17 — Understated and Overstood

Sanford Biggers wants you to listen. He punctuates his latest work with gunshots—and his images with torn bodies, towering fields of black, and colors running every which way. With one major party giving aid and comfort to bigots and Neo-Nazis, he evokes everything from African totems and decorative arts to Black Lives Matter.

Yet he also challenges one to pin any of his images down. On top of that, he calls the show and its centerpiece Selah, at Marianne Boesky through October 21. Sometimes it takes courage to resist interpretation, so permit me (after last time on another African American artist, Kara Walker) another extra post this week to keep up with the busy early fall.

That centerpiece is larger than life, but only barely, and other work may run comically small. Selah stands nearly eleven feet tall, but only because the human figure has its hands raised, either to avoid a deadly police response or in the throes of death. Patches of red, white, black, and blue heighten its jagged outlines, and one lower leg is entirely shot away.

A bronze head on a pedestal shows off a bullet hole more directly, in place of an eye. The flat bronze recalls African art and the “primitivism” of early Modernism, and the single eye more reasonable in a profile connects to Cubism as well. Someone might have taken a gun to a museum artifact or a human being, but then art may disfigure the humanity of others, too.

Overstood combines the show’s scales, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether Biggers has overstated or understood. A black triangle connects three small African gods on the floor to the black outlines of four men on the wall, like enormous cast shadows. Do they draw on iconic photographs of black activists forty years ago? Should one be worshipping gods or men? Gunfire rings out regularly in a video of still more totems, its five channels blinking on and off in a further rhythm. Yet the monitors receive a kind of demotion, too, relegated to leaning up against a corner.

They also bear glimpses of landscape and the title Infinite Tabernacle. Registering the past does not exclude the possibility of renewal. The bright colors of Selah derive from tapestry, and actual tapestry goes into wall pieces—along with charcoal, acrylic, mirrored tiles, and gold leaf. Sources range from Japan and Egypt to America more than a century ago. To trust the artist, they served as markers for the Underground Railroad. With work so all over the map, I can promise only so much.

Speaking of resisting interpretation, you may remember selah as a refrain of uncertain meaning in the Psalms. After years of rock concerts, I want it to signal a guitar break or an invitation to audience response. And his show at SculptureCenter in 2011 went for volume. Maybe Biggers is learning eclecticism from Rashid Johnson or reticence from David Hammons. Maybe he could agree with Walker in refusing to stand for a people or a generation just a few blocks away. Still, selah.

Leslie Wayne has a taste for African tapestry, too. She appeared just this year in “Africa on My Mind” at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. Still, she is using the decorative arts much like Biggers, to unsettle abstract painting, with its own refusal of interpretation. A white artist born in Germany, she paints and rubs away at her painting, crinkles it up, and attaches it to more painting. It may fold over the top of the backdrop, as if hanging out to dry, at Jack Shainman through October 21. Even routine geometry and gesture can be an opening onto multiple cultures—or an opening into the third dimension.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.