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.