black is a color

by Susannah Magers

installation view Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. Photo: Michael Underwood

black is a color
July 15 – August 19, 2017
Charlie James Gallery
Curated by Essence Harden
With works by Sadie Barnette, Adee Roberson, Lauren Halsey, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Texas Isaiah, Azikiwe Mohammed, Nikki Pressley, and Patrick Martinez 

A provocative question announces the dense, lushly-worded curatorial premise for the group show black is a color: “What would it be to see pink on the wall and name it black?” In this way, black is a color leverages color as an unpredictable strategic visual and conceptual structure where “blackness is and is not locatable.” Writer and social critic James Baldwin’s recollection from his 1955 Notes of a Native Son on moving to New Jersey shortly after his father’s death in 1943 comes to mind here (what would have been Baldwin’s 93rd birthday just passed on August 2): “…one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people.” black is a color both disrupts and reflects back the argument in Baldwin’s statement by reframing what the viewer thinks blackness is, was, and could be—shimmering and multivalent—and resists easy thematic oversimplifications or groupings.

Entering the gallery, Lauren Halsey’s The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project: Tower 1: 20 of 1356, 2017 is immediately visible and prominent, comprised of twenty gypsum panels arranged in a reverent, 96 by 112.5 inch pictorial grid. Alien spaceships, outstretched palms holding pyramids, body-builders, musicians playing instruments, people engaged in scholarship, and hands clasped in solidarity signal both contemporaneity and futurity, excavated from a not so distant past and present. The title of Patrick Martinez’s neon sign, Black Owned, 2016, shares a portion of the text from a panel in Halsey’s work— which reads ‘Black Owned Beauty’—and is placed above the gallery doorway, in the placement and red and green colors of a typical exit sign. Rather than instructional, Martinez’s signage is a glowing, declarative statement. Facing each other, these two works illicit a call and response particularly evident upon exiting the gallery space: black is a color reiterates its conceptual and visual aims as an exhibition powerfully here.

Adjacent to Halsey’s work is Adee Roberson’s energetic acrylic on canvas, Got to Keep Hanging On, 2017, golden lines and half circles on top of shades of turquoise, purple and fuchsia that register as repetitive, ritualistic gestures paired with a drum kit that bears similar markings and a framed (presumably personal) candid photo surrounded by gold glitter. Closest to the gallery windows, Sadie Barnette’s mixed media collage and altered found material works are arranged salon-style, marked by the incorporation of hyper-real moments in glittery, shining, reflective, metallic, iridescent or holographic surfaces—like the holographic replacement for the sky in the collage Untitled (Glitter House), 2017—interrupts the reading of these materials as found objects, snapshots, or even social documentary. This, in combination with galactic imagery imparts an access for the viewer in imagining what was or what could have been there, that considers maker and subject, particularly evident in the swirling, tunnel-like space of Untitled (Pink and Black Abstract), 2017. Could these be mined from the artist’s personal collection, or sourced from someone else’s personal archive? In combination, they read as contemporary artifacts, assembled to play with and reveal assumptions based on their individual cultural associations. 

Across the room is a more somber tone. Nikki Pressley’s distant, dream-like weight of the invisible (Du Bois homesite) renders the path leading to W.E.B Du Bois’ homesite, now a designated National Historic Site in Great Barrington, MA. The image reads as geographically anonymous—this could be a trail running through a forest of trees anywhere—but the title specifies and situates the location. It appears that this view of the trail is a frequently documented one: photos online, taken and submitted by visitors to the Du Bois homesite, depict this same perspective, looking ahead, or back, from a distance. What differentiates Pressley’s depiction of the trail is disorientation through absence: there are no visitors, no signage, and no other visual cues to ground the location. The ground and the sky here could almost be interchangeable.

Pressley’s work is placed next to Kenyatta A.C. Hinkel’s Kentifrican Headdress, 2009/2012, a figurative sculpture made of chicken wire and synthetic fiber, and two india ink works on Duralar, The Evanesced: Hoaxes, Hoaxes and Haints #4, 2017 and The Evanesced: Hoaxes, Hoaxes and Haints #5, 2017. In contrast to the featureless, life-size figure of Hinkel’s, positioned unassumingly (and awkwardly close) to the wall as if in a natural history museum, the combination of layering more definitive, lyrical line with the faint, apparition-like forms in these unframed and figurative drawings imbues these bodies (and in some cases, just arms and feet) with an untethered precariousness. Part of a larger series, The Evanesced—‘evanesce’ literally means to pass out of sight, memory, or existence—these drawings share an unsettling, enigmatic quality with the figure of Hinkel’s Kentrification Headdress, their identities obscured. These two-dimensional works of Hinkel’s in addition to Pressley’s activation in removal, 2015-2017—all hung in a stairwell leading to the gallery office—would have been better served in a more proximal relationship to the rest of the work in the exhibition. Given the shared visual and conceptual connections between Pressley and Hinkel’s works, this relationship could be more demonstrable—for example, placing Kentrification Headdress facing Pressley’s and Hinkel’s two-dimensional works, and farther from the wall, would place the viewer in a position of physically negotiating the space between themselves and the work, and the weight of acknowledging their collective anonymity. 

In a smaller room off of this main gallery space is Azikiwe Mohammed’s thrift store installation. Thrift stores are curated spaces, no matter how haphazard that process might appear to be; some approach museum-like detail in their staging and pairing of objects based on the year they were made, brand, designer, and materiality. A trained eye seeks out and recognizes what is deemed to be the authentic object. These objects carry stories, imbued with the context in which it was crafted, economic transactions that occurred as it circulated and was sold, and sometimes, who owned them—narratives that aren’t necessarily transparent or even known. The items in Mohammed’s thrift store are few—lamps, tapestries, t-shirts, rings, and combs—the lamps spaced with careful precision on shelves. The lamps reflect back cultural perceptions of blackness as embodied in (problematic) figurative and decorative ways. The installation also reads as a selective black history timeline—shifting from moments of extreme inhumanity (the tapestry 1st Date / Thank You, Now I’m Tired, 2017 which depicts a hanged man recently cut down from the tree under which he rests, with a woman resting beside, a decidedly more gruesome scenario than the title alludes to that is not immediately noticeable) to those of empowerment (Black Receipt #5, positions sterling-silver and gold plated combs, each with the clenched fist of the Black Power salute forming the base of the handle). One of the combs features the palm facing out and one with the back of the hand visible, displayed in a locked black and red box (doubling down on the treasured aesthetic of a collector). In between sits a lamp with ceramic black panther base, leaving little doubt about the symbolic presence of the adjacent enshrined combs.

Texas Isaiah’s My Name is My Name II, 2017, an altar to the artist, is an evocative self-requiem. Constructed with the characteristic visual symmetry of an altar and its trappings—prayer candles, scented essential oils, photographs framed and unframed, letters and notes, flowers—Black Lives Matter buttons placed on the top of partially burned candles function as surrogates for those lost. The stacked flowers could have very well been contributed by the public at the opening; in this sense, Isaiah’s altar performs a dual purpose as cathartic self-eulogy prioritizing the agency in an intentional, uncompromised narrative while exposing the disturbing reality of creating one’s own commemoration in anticipation of violence or death. An individual tribute, it can also be read as honoring the specific memories of Aiyana Jones, Gabriella Nevarez, and Tanisha Anderson—fellow people of color, who died at the hands of police, whose airbrush-painted portraits rendered on black t-shirts hang along with gold nameplate rings in the adjoining room, part of the aforementioned installation by Azikiwe Mohammed.

In a photograph above this pallet altar, My Name Is My Name I, 2017, a naked figure (the artist?) sits between plants on the floor inside a house. Mimicking the plant’s forms (one is so tall it leans to form a leafy arch above the seated person) they sit with legs together, feet flat, head bowed, face obscured, and arms and hands stacked as if in a diving position. Read against a backdrop of thriving plants, is this a protective or reactive gesture? This installation, and the exhibition itself, frames, responds and extends to the viewer a question posed in a journal on the altar (presumably belonging to Isaiah) about how the artist would like to be remembered: “Is it up to me to answer? I’m not entirely sure.” 

black is a color presents reexaminations of current and past experiences and proposes new realities, while embodying a relatively less bleak ‘occupied territory’ than the one Baldwin depicts; this space declares agency in the face of forces acting on and in the lives of these artists and their communities. Through this prioritization of agency, black is a color reconsiders the spaces we might see and honor blackness, and those where we don’t. The exhibition complicates what narratives may be embedded in and performed upon blackness as a cultural construct in literal, proverbial and experimental ways; at once deeply personal and collective experience-oriented, without universalizing or forced cohesion.

black is a color runs from July 15–August 19, 2017 at Charlie James Gallery (969 Chung King Road, Los Angeles 90012). 

installation view courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. Photo: Michael Underwood

Sadie Barnett, courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. Photo: Michael Underwood

Azikiwe Mohammed, courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. Photo: Michael Underwood

Kenyatta A. C. Hinkle, courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. Photo: Michael Underwood

Texas Isaiah, courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. Photo: Michael Underwood

installation view courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. Photo: Michael Underwood

A Bay Area, California native, Susannah Magers is a curator and writer based in Long Beach, CA. Recent curatorial projects include the 2016 exhibition Amanda Curreri: The Calmest of Us Would Be Lunatics, which was also presented at the Oakland Museum of California, during Open Engagement 2016—POWER. Her writing has appeared in Art Practical, Daily Serving, and SF Arts Monthly. Current projects include guest editing an upcoming issue of Sinister Wisdom (the oldest surviving multicultural lesbian literary and art journal in the United States) on the theme of transfer in contemporary lesbian art.