a solo show -- at
Azarian-McCullough Art Gallery
St. Thomas Aquinas College
Jan - Feb 2012
r.l. bickham august 2011
new orleans louisiana
Distributed through these pieces, in an idiomatic lexicon of color and the visual promise of tactile complexity, is a bricolage, and a conversation she has been having with herself for a very long time.
This conversation, this work of uncommon humanity, won my admiration long ago and has been an unfairly expensive one for her. It is an expansive and extended engagement with normative ethics, facing off against the collective shadow of an allegedly post-racial and sexist world.
She has also come to the conclusion, of sorts, that she cannot be the only one objecting, that She must not be; thus the hubris of a show and the humility of her gratitude.
I would have to say that her work is the stuff of the geometric and metaphorical South, but, like a solid foundation, it is critical to the entire construct resting on it. She is unapologetically and explicitly not an advocate of the school of art that placates power or encourages escape or art that reiterates aesthetic indulgences.
There is something Spartan about her work. Whether for personal reasons or professional ones, her bottom line can be pinpointed more accurately by Mathew 25:40 than any given affectation; “And the King will make answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Because you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
For this student of Adorno’s aesthetic, if anything, the voice is almost too direct, accessible, dialectical, personal, and narrative; the art of implication, the art of no art. A theater piece with the actors performing amongst the audience, in the spirit of The Living Theater. Who knows if one damn thing she’s saying is true? Who knows if any of this happened at all? Who would risk what she has? Who would question her veracity, her vulnerability, her commitment submitted to indifference with hope? These works attempt to open into a moral quandary within the viewer.
The implicit tension created from the seemingly haphazard use of materials, the warmth and complexity of wood and the grain, the hand written lettering, the strong effervescent use of color is exponentially increased by juxtapositions in the subject matter.
Again and again in a world gone crazy with specialization, in these porous surfaces witnessing, knowledge and culpability are glimpsed, invoked like the memory of a bittersweet world of tastes, of smells, of particularistic vibrancy, now grown silent and empty.
Yes, a White woman is creating Black Art. This is a soft serve target that almost any interpretation can hit out of the park without even trying; boilerplate Kitsch. The whole panoply of modernity’s Racialized conventions immediately hover about, deployed in one deceptively simple descriptive aside.
A White woman is looking at, among other things (her pieces cover much more than the pieces she has gotten the most attention from), Black people. Just saying " a White woman is looking at black people" makes the air of popular culture tingle with speculation, innuendo. The Black/White pair, the two privileged signifiers that all consensus worth listening to
(anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists) agree doesn’t exist, but everyday language cannot do without.
Differences? Yes, very much so, but based on those morphological characteristics? No. Pigment can never have any more significance for character than blue or brown eyes.
So, a meaningless tease? Part of what a lack of objective evidence means is that we make them whatever they are conventionally. We are the culprits.
Context here is a frame for the picture.
Those two, first of all, are a pair; they should never be thought of or used in isolation. One implies the other, defines the other; they will never be without each other. To withdraw our cultural investment in one is to empty out the very basis of the other. The combination should not be considered unusual; they stand at the moral center of this country’s 400-year history.
If that phrase in context can mean anything, it would be that the “Black” art is art against color as character. Black is literally the absence of color. What her most commented upon pieces do that may be unique in the Art world, and certainly in popular culture, is, if you will, expand the range of identification to the other side of the mirror. In our increasingly unilateral, narcissistic, hyper-real, globalized, monochrome culture, to witness, for, to relish, to find solace in the “Other,” is a radical move.
An antithesis of all the disingenuous melodrama over the struggle to come to terms with race and racism. One does not struggle with it; one struggles against it. Struggling with it as anything tolerable or sensible wouldn’t occur to her except as “the lady doth protest too much”, except as malice and forethought, except as the “soft” racialization implicit in the adoration of the superhuman athlete, the tokenism of objectification of the Black body so widely acceptable.
Except as a poisonous addiction this country, from its inception and still today, chooses to simultaneously deny and not to let go of, an addiction whose prerequisite is the simple and terribly ordinary investment in the use of Black and White as indices of character of any sort. Color as character and/or racial categories are vanishing points, nebulous concepts that move away the more you focus on them. To try to rationally come to terms with what is finally incoherent and irrational is a fool’s task, a way of insuring that a goal will never be achieved.
What makes these dark skinned Americans, this diverse diasporic aggregate and their descendents, privileged subjects is the misfortune that brought them to these shores and what they have done with their fates. What makes them a touchstone metaphor and point of identification for all human suffering is their peculiar riff, if you will, with regard to the suffering visited upon them. Among the many innocents lost, the wasted lives, the sacrifices, an alchemy of sorts: BluesPeople.
We are not voyeouristically peeking into some odd “Wigger” mimicry here or fetishistic abstraction of the other. Part of what these pieces attempt to speak about are moral and ethical choices; either the internalization of nihilistic racialism, nationalism and exceptionalism or the life work, the life world, of an Ethic of Care and a capacity for joy. An Ethic of Care as a guiding principal, dare I say, universal? An ethic whose prerequisite, unlike a guiding principal based on superiority or domination is, rather, equanimity and respect.
We make these choices to stigmatize or identify from day to day, from moment to moment. I will paraphrase Jean Seaberg, another American beauty known for her fierce honesty, brought down by some of the same American demons; “There is no generation gap or racial gap or gender gap, there is a compassion gap.”
Whoever and whatever these people we call Black and White are, and whatever this country we call America is, they are still caught up in the cognitive dissonance of this binary pathology.
I think a “White woman making Black art” attempts to provide one individual’s vision of another place. I think it also makes explicit what many have understood for years and that is that these people of the diaspora, these slaves and children of slaves and their path in this country, became the moral core of this country a long time ago. These persons became the core because of their central position in the nation’s genesis and simultaneously, this nation’s disavowal of them and their undeniable importance.
r l bickham