Kehinde Wiley @ Toledo Museum of Art

Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), Morpheus. Oil on canvas, 2008. 108 x 180 in. (274.3 x 457.2 cm). Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California; Sean Kelly, New York; Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London © Kehinde Wiley

Aside from having seen his work in print, I first saw the original work of Kehinde Wiley at the 30 Americans exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2015. There I experienced his figure painting Sleep, an 11 X 25-foot oil painting from 2008, with a European Arts & Crafts-designed background. It was breath-taking, even overwhelming. As part of the Rubell Collection, this erotic figure called out as I described in that review, “like a painting of Christ after he was taken down from the cross.”

From the few works I saw back then, I was unable to ascertain the larger and broader work of Wiley, that is until his current exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art, which just opened a large retrospective of Kehinde Wiley, A New Republic, on February 10, 2017. The exhibition presents sixty paintings, sculptures and stained glass works curated by Eugenie Tsai, the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and is a traveling exhibition.

When I first saw the work in Detroit, I asked myself: Is this about the scale of portraiture with decorative backgrounds? But one needs to see the scope of this exhibition to realize this is not about scale, as there are many small and intimate paintings that dispel that first impression. Wiley had taken his early study of art and acquired experience from undergraduate school at the San Francisco Arts Institute and combined it with an MFA from Yale to begin a crusade.

Kehinde Wiley, Conspicuous Fraud, Oil on canvas, 60 X 72″ 2001

Entering the exhibition, it was the painting in the first room, Conspicuous Fraud, Series #1, from 2001, Wiley’s last year at Yale, that I went back to after seeing the entire exhibition. The work seems like a major departure, a step forward that puts him on a trajectory that he develops and elaborates on over the next fifteen years. The painting is larger. We see an African American male in a suit with meandering black clouds. He notably breaks with the picture plane, clouds in both background and foreground. The larger than life figure in this painting disturbs the tropes of portraiture painting and intentionally elevates the subject’s status, juxtaposed to all preexisting social stereotypes. The road ahead is established and paved here in 2001. The idea of portraying young black men in power positions, be they political, social, or religious, will become Wiley’s focus, beginning in the United States on the streets of Harlem, but eventually expanding to include Senegal, Dakar, Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai, ultimately to become what Wiley would describe as the World Stage.

With his accomplished technical set of tools in hand, at Yale the issues that honed his perspective would be discussions surrounding identity, sexuality, gender and symbols of political power. The exhibition A New Republic focuses on African American males, Old Master portraiture and backgrounds, and then moves on to African American women, stained glass and sculpture.

Kehinde Wiley, The Two Sisters. Oil on linen, 2012. 96 x 72 in. (243.8 x 182.9 cm). Collection of Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr. Courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York. © Kehinde Wiley. (Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York)

“The magnitude of this exhibition will impress even those familiar with Wiley’s work,” said Brian P. Kennedy, TMA director, president and CEO. “He has taken the grandeur of portrait painting and translated it with his portrayals of contemporary African American men and women. Wiley bridges the gap between traditional portraiture and our daily lives, and in doing so, he raises questions about identity and how we perceive ourselves and others.”

Growing up in South Center Los Angeles in the late 1980s, Wiley began studying art early on, spending time in museums and seeing how the figure was presented over the last three hundred years. Africans were depicted as slaves, then servants, and ultimately as drug dealers, gang members and inciters of violence.

Wiley says, “Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. This is my way of saying yes to us.”

What seems to develop gradually is a complex multi-layered approach to his feelings about the lack of African Americans depicted in a positive way. He uses scale, Old Master settings, elaborate background patterns, and changes to the picture plane, all part of his tool bag to express the beauty and grandeur of normal people, something that has become his passion. He expands exponentially to include women, sculpture, stained glass and smaller paintings framed as if they were part of a cathedral altarpiece. All of this is an effort to attack the lack of existing works that depict African American subjects in a positive way. He has taken on the mission—I began by referring to it as a crusade—as one man, one artist, to fill the void in the complete history of Western Art.

Kehinde Wiley, After Memling’s Portrait of Man with a Coin of the Emperor Nero. Oil on wood panel in artist designed hand fabricated frame with 22k gold leaf gilding, 2013. With doors open: 24 1/2 x 29 x 5 in. (62.2 x 73.7 x 12.7 cm)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wiley comments, “What I wanted to do was create a body of work in which empathy and the language of religious and the rapturous all collide in the same place.”  What does the coin he holds say? “In God We Trust?” On closer observation, it replicates the Roman coin used in Hans Memling’s Man with a Roman Coin, 1471, oil on a panel.

Wiley says, “There is something to be said about the power of smallness. As an artist who is in love with the material practice of painting, I can’t help but be amazed every time I look at Hans Memling’s small panel portrait…the simplicity of the small mark made well.”

Kehinde Wiley, Anthony of Padua. Oil on canvas, 2013. 72 x 60 in. (182.9 x 152.4 cm). Seattle Art Museum; gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum

An aspect of Wiley’s portraiture painting is the issue of his breaking the picture plane, using the background and then bringing it forward over the subject. This goes back to paintings by the Old Masters, where there was a sense that it was necessary to preserve the integrity of the picture plane, to provide a flatness under and above the illusion of three-dimensional space, a technique discussed by Clement Greenburg in his essay “Modernist Painting” in which he talks about this concept being used in modern art as well. Wiley knows this all too well and intentionally works against this concept to say to his viewer, this is not photorealism, in case you were wondering. The element is playful, colorful, spatial and defiant.

Kehinde Wiley seems inspired by historical paintings of aristocrats and royalty where he uses his models—many cast in the streets of Harlem—and has them do dress-up for his photo sessions. My guess would be that he begins with high-resolution images captured in the studio with the precise control of light. The images are then projected onto a large linen canvas where the drawing begins, including the intricate backgrounds, using skilled assistants to save time. He probably works with oil paint primarily on the figure(s), while the antique and wallpaper-like backgrounds are painted using others.

Looking back through art history at paintings by Titian, Gainsborough and Ingres, Wiley projects heroism onto his black men and women as subjects who are missing from the history of Western art. He has developed his own distinct vocabulary from these Old Masters settings juxtaposed with these young, quintessential models. A New Republic, as a state in which supreme power is held by people through their elected representatives, is code for new representatives missing from our past.

Wiley delivers these skillful masterpieces to provoke a conversation about gender, race, politics and religion.

Toledo Museum of Art   Kehinde Wiley, A New Republic, February 10 – May 14, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caledonia Curry @ Library Street Collective

A Light at the End of the Tunnel- Caledonia Curry (Swoon) at Library Street Collective

“…You can start to create little cracks in the façade of possibility and inevitability that overlays all of our lives.”-Caledonia Curry at her TED Talk, 2010 

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Swoon, Installation Image, All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan and Sal Rodriguez

Caledonia Curry (tag name Swoon) seems intimately aware of the ephemeral, fragile nature of both the human body and human endeavor. This sensibility weaves through all of her bodies of work, which make up for the degradability of their materials with iron-clad social consciousness and fierce political engagement. Curry first gained attention on the global art scene for her large scaled, lyrical street art prints, which, like her work at Library St Collective, engage with the figure overlaid with gorgeous lacework of iconic decorative flourishes and symbols. Curry would scout out locations for her prints, then install them, on walls, lamp posts, and other architectural surfaces, using wheat paste. These delicate cut-paper and print collages are not meant to last forever- they fade away, gently and gradually, like distant memories. To Curry, physical immortality of work is beside the point- this seems unusual, given the highly formal, decorative nature of her constructions. What such highly developed technical skill and labor intensive process is meant to foster is less reverence for the made object itself than a holding of space for a new perspective, a chance to recontextualize one’s relationship with place, with symbolism, with one’s own identity.

The same curious mixture of preciousness and ephemerality finds its way from Swoon’s street art practice into Curry’s site specific installation at Library St Collective. As lovingly wrought and beautifully realized as Curry’s life-sized figurative prints and elaborate cut paper confections are, they are installed with no greater measure of preciousness or economic value than her wheat pasted public works. Curry’s figurative cut out prints hang suspended from strands of fishing line, freed from the relative safety, and canonical indexing, of traditional wall installation. They move in the breeze- they’re equally visible from front and back. Curry’s incredible paper cut-outs, executed in black and white and resembling every beautiful, lace-like form a viewer can call up, from snowflakes to double helixes to Celtic knot work, drape freely from the gallery’s ceiling and dangle, like the figure cutouts, from strands of fishing line, inviting touch, uncannily mimicking the slight movements of sentient life.

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Swoon cut paper intallation-detail

The heaviness of Curry’s concept for her site specific install at Library St is what grounds these floating works. Taking the narrow, tunnel-like structure of the front part of the gallery as inspiration, Curry is attempting, with The Light After, to recreate for the viewer her own narrative of a phenomenon known as “the empathetic death experience.” Curry encountered this phenomenon in a dream of a space filled with falling snow and “blossoms of light,” during which she felt that her mother had died. Upon awakening, she discovered that her mother had, indeed, passed away.

The snow-blossom motif of Curry’s installation occupies Library St.’s space as a tunnel of atmospheric light similar to those described by people who have had near-death experiences. Dispersed around this bright, ungrounding fairyland are Curry’s life-sized figurative prints which, despite their ephemeral construction, nail the viewer with quietly appraising or imploring gazes, each taking the form of a step on the initiation path toward death. Curry’s figures are iconic- an old, bearded hermit leaning on a walking stick, his lower body morphing into ramshackle architecture which crumbles, at his feet, into a profusion of skulls. A heartbreaking double image of a woman filled with youth and vitality, holding a baby, while her forward-projected shadow looms behind her, emaciated, rigged up with oxygen tubes, her eyes engaging the viewer’s in abject, human terror of proceeding down the very tunnel that surrounds her.

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Swoon, Memento Mori, 2016, block print on hand cut mylar,edition3 of 12, 84-x-67″

Curry takes the viewer through this legendary tunnel, which leads into a stark hallway painted in black and white geometric and organic forms- a nice visual metaphor for the space between the end of the tunnel and what comes after- into the gallery’s larger, airier back room or, as Curry titles it, “The Meadow.” The figurative prints in The Meadow aren’t allegories of death, but of rebirth- the color scheme of The Meadow is warmer, more organic, the 3D elements more tactile and sensual- piles of green velvet take the place of the ethereal cut-paper hangings within the tunnel. Mother-child pairings and figures surrounded by simple, ancient symbols of life and birth- paisleys, triple knots, spirals- gaze invitingly out or, more often, appear turned inward, eyes closed, in a private ecstasy of union with the life-power of the universe.

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Swoon, Milton II, Diogenesis, 2016 block print on hand cut mylar edition, 3 of 6 89×66″

There’s an uncanniness, a formal directness, and a powerful combination of personal and political narrative to Curry’s work that makes it difficult to contextualize in contemporary studio practice. The bald allegory and mirror-image rendering of her figure-prints awakens the viewer to the power of such imagery as expressed in every layer of our society, from religious painting to Chuck E. Cheese animatronics- all of them evoke the same frisson. Curry’s work reveals why this is so. Confronted with our own image reworked into symbolism, we begin to examine the foundations of universal truths- birth, death, spirit, the afterlife, the sentience of so-called inanimate objects- with the understanding that these truths emanate from our own bodies. Our bodies are ephemeral. What we can do with them, change with them, what we can leave to succeeding generations, is eternal. It is this truth that forms the kernel of Curry’s work in every medium and context that she engages.

“Swoon- The Light After” is on display at Library Street Collective through November 26, 2016.

 

 

After Dark @ Detroit Institute of Arts

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Installation, Detroit After Dark, Image courtesy of the Detroit Art Review

Photography at night has been around since the late 1800’s when photographers were experimenting with exposing a variety of sensitive chemicals to light, first on plates by Louis Daguerre, followed by salt prints on paper by William Talbot. Later in the early 1900’s Alfred Stieglitz began working at night, and in 1932, Brassai published Paris De Nuit, a collection of black and white photographs of the streets of Paris at night.

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has turned to its collection under the direction of Nancy Barr, Curator of Photography, to produce Detroit After Dark. She says in her statement in the catalogue, “Detroit After Dark: Photographs from the Collection of the DIA takes a closer look at night photographs made in the Motor City just after 1950 through present day—its city streets and architecture, as well as its diverse and often frenetic music scene.”

For the purpose of this review, this writer will draw a distinction between the journalistic photography (mostly the Detroit music scene) and focus on the art photography in the exhibition.

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Robert Frank, Untitled, Gelatin silver print, 1955

With a Guggenheim grant in his pocket, Robert Frank bought a used Ford in June of 1955 and began a 10,000-mile journey around the United States. Detroit was one destination where he stayed long enough to capture images from Belle Isle to this Romeo strawberry stand at night, illuminated with a string of party lights. After developing and making contact sheets from 760 rolls of black and white Tri-X film, 83 images would be enough to make The Americans, first published in Paris, then eventually the United States. Frank didn’t set out to address the issues that faced the country, but inadvertently became an incontestable witness, using his 35mm Leica Rangefinder, to the solitude of American society.

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Scott Hocking, Jefferson at Dearborn, Pigment Print, 2012 Courtesy of the DIA

Scott Hocking, a Detroit artist who has created site-specific sculpture installations and a variety of photographic projects, provides the viewer with a stark image of a lonely building on Jefferson Avenue, formally centered with time exposure that provides a lit building against a Windsor backdrop. The exposure is possible because of the stillness in the frame. Detroit Nights is an ongoing project, documenting the streets, railroads, quiet corners and unpredictable public lighting of Detroit at night. In a statement, he says, “I am interested in forgotten places, and things kept out of sight. I don’t know if this is because I’m from Detroit, a city that has become known for urban prairies and empty factories; but I try to work the same way no matter where I am.” Scott Hocking is represented by the Susanne Hilberry Gallery.

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Jenny Risher, Image courtesy of Jeff Cancelosi

Jenny Risher, shown here holding her book with her photograph from the exhibition, is a commercial photographer with a collection of personal work. Known for her book, Heart Soul Detroit, where she interviewed and photographed 50 iconic Detroiters, including Smokey Robinson, Jack White Eminem and Lily Tomlin. Here in this image is Ms. Risher holding open her book, revealing the image from the exhibition, Mr. Porter.

 

 

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Jenny Risher, Mr. Porter, Pigment print, Courtesy of the DIA

 

 

 

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Dave Jordano, Abandoned Brush Park Building, Pigment print, 2010, Courtesy of the DIA

Dave Jordano first established himself as a successful commercial photographer in Chicago working with national print campaigns, before turning his lens to personal work here in Detroit. Jordano was born in Detroit and graduated from the Center for Creative Studies in 1974 with a BFA in Photography. His large image, Abandoned Brush Park Building, dominates the exhibition with its scale depicting the contrast between this abandoned building and the lights of Comerica Park. He says in a statement, “These photographs represent a visual document that speaks to the quiet determination of Detroit residents, both as independent shop operators and as home owners who have survived the long and difficult path of living in a post-industrial city stripped of economic prosperity and opportunity. These photographs speak truth without casting an overly sentimental gaze.” Like other photographers in Detroit, there seems to be a trend in capturing a still image using a tripod to provide the ability to depict a large depth of field and focus, highlighted by a light source.

The Detroit Institute for the Arts and its permanent collection bring powerful imagery in the Detroit After Dark, exhibition. DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons says in the catalogue, “The DIA is indebted to the photographers committed to their practice in the city and who have contributed to this exhibition. I am grateful to those artists who have gifted their work to the museum and to the patrons who have donated art and contributed funds for the purchase and acquisitions of photographs for the permanent collection.”

Detroit Institute of Arts

5200 Woodward 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue. -Thu., 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Exhibition free with regular museum admission. Admission to DIA is free for residents of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. Others: $12.50 adults, $8 seniors, $6 ages 6-17.

 

Jim Crawford @ Trinosophes

 

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Jim Crawford, Pile Series, All images courtesy of Glen Mannisto, with assistance form Robert Hensleigh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The prevailing stereotype of Detroit’s ’60s and ’70s iconic Cass Corridor art scene is misleading. Images of beer-swigging, dope-smoking, post-adolescent boys, spitting on studio floors and recycling beer cans into expressionistic, assemblaged sculptures with which they hoped to violate the hallowed halls of the Detroit Institute of Arts come to mind. It was a myth created by romantic souls who tried to rescue bohemia from Detroit’s growing derelict landscape. Of course there was also a considerable population of heady, intellectual /artist types who cowed up around the Detroit Institute of Arts, read books, went to arty films, listened to music other than the MC5, even went to the opera and had jobs too. Artist Jim Crawford who has a mini-retrospective at Trinosophes, a performance space in downtown Detroit, seems like he could have been one of those.

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Jim Crawford, Tea Stain Series in Vitrine, 3 x 5 Cards

Crawford’s art is marked by a psychologically reflexive interiority—it occurs more in the mind as noumenon than as object or phenomenon—and makes what seems an ordinary material world into the extraordinary. Simple gestures or processes, replacing the traditional romance of creating a single object, are repeated and accumulated to explore a sense of time and evolved change, and to challenge our perception in an artistic process sometimes referred to as Conceptual Art. In 1970, in a beautifully measured and meditative ritual production, Crawford translated his daily cups of tea at his job at the Michigan Council for the Arts into a very deliberate series of over one hundred tea bag stains on 3”X5” cards. In the Trinosohes gallery, the tannic-colored blots have been arranged on a grid in two display vitrines to accomplish a stunning array of difference and signifying presence. Each stain records a moment with countless daily variables (temperature, emotional presence, gravity, haptics), or what acute perception can distinguish, becoming a sign of those variable influences as much as a thing to perceive in itself.

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Jim Crawford, Folded Paper Series, Graphite, staples, paper, 1971 (smallest: 8″ x 12”, largest: 22” x 26”)

Like many artists Crawford works serially, and the Trinosophe exhibition features six main series that he has explored from the late ’60s until now. The most conventional form in the exhibition (created in the early ’70s, and of which seven individual examples are exhibited) is composed of sheets of paper folded into flat, randomly occurring geometric shapes, punctuated with staples, and marked or patinaed with graphite or paint. Created to be two-sided, they are a unique composition like nothing else: resembling geometric clouds (each is magnificently unique, but best experienced together so go see the show), and apprehended or readable more as signs than as objects. As in the best of human productions, the materials have dictated the form. In a public interview at the gallery, Crawford quipped, “I had a long staple gun,” allowing staples to reach and punctuate everywhere on these manipulated forms, depositing dash-like marks, leaving shadows and an almost musical notational presence. The scribbled or shaded graphite illuminates and posits a “natural” surface (think birch bark); and the creases of the folds give the pieces a sense of volume and mass, but therein lies the challenge. They suggest dimensionality or objectivity, yet are ultimately inscrutable, seductively flat signs, abstracted and void of referent.

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Jim Crawford, Pile Series, 1972, 20 Untitled photographs (1967, 1972 and 1972) color, black & white photos, paint – 8” x 10”

There is also a suite of photographs that document what Crawford has called the “Pile Series; discovered throughout the city, they record the presence of piles of various industrial or commercial materials that seem, through Crawford’s discerning eye, to achieve the status of sculpture. No doubt he has positioned these twenty images to both serve as ironic description of the identity of the artist (suggesting perhaps that art challenges perception, enabling it to discern “found objects” or objets trouvés as art, thus emphasizing the prominent part that ideas and concepts play in perception), as well as to call attention to the compelling nature of our landscape, and to create a dialogue that compares art to the supposed randomness of everyday material reality. Included in the series are photos of stacks of snow fence, old tires, boxes of fruit, and lumber at a construction site. Each of the photos reveals the particular effect that weather, light, and context play in conditioning both the appearance of the particular stack and our perception of it. The raw quality of the 40-year-old 8”X10” black and white photos and derelict framing of them adds a certain historical charm to the project.

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Jim Crawford, Eggshell Series (2015-2016) Mixed media (paint, glitter, walnut dye)

Two recently created series echo Crawford’s earlier strategies for dealing with recycled materials with an emphasis on personal biographical influences. Inspired by his grandmother’s practice of reading tea leaves at the kitchen table, Crawford, while cooking, has recycled cracked egg shells back into their cartons to produce stark abstracted images of the roundness of eggs. Like his grandmother’s tea leaves, the organic byproducts of his everyday life have become signs: a circle in a square, an egg in a carton, dyed with walnut stain from his walnut tree — painted and decaying they are ever changing and evolving. The delicate egg shells may at first appear as mere garbage or waste, but emerge with a powerful, though fragile, talismanic presence.

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Jim Crawford, Cat Can Series, 10.5” x 14” x 9.5”, Mixed media, 2015-2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In another series, Crawford has engaged Midnight, a stray black cat that wandered into his garden, to create the Cat Can Series. “An unlimited supply” of cat food cans from feeding Midnight becomes the material for a somewhat awkwardly stated, perhaps eccentric arrangement of aluminum cat food cans in various conditions: some painted or stained green (Midnight’s eye color), some crushed, some with labels intact (9 Lives and Friskies being the preferred brands), and all enclosed in boxed frames. Employing the same stacking gesture as the early 1970 series, Crawford resuscitates the theme of exploring the visual landscape for architectonic structure.

In wandering through Xavier’s modernist furniture store on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, Trinosophe’s co-director Rebecca Mazzei, along with Joel Peterson, ironically found a stack photos that intrigued her. Pursuing the maker of the photos, she rediscovered the seemingly forgotten artist and art of Crawford. In researching, organizing and designing the exhibition “Jim Crawford,” she has energetically brought to our attention one of the most intriguing figures of the Cass Corridor, one whose work challenges perception and through its changes translates time into evidence for the consideration of big ideas. The exhibition includes various support materials from Crawford’s own archives, such as a post card series and ring binders and files containing Crawford’s copious notations on his projects.

Jim Crawford at Trinosophes – Through December 23, 2016

 

Sanford Biggers @ MOCAD

Sanford Biggers Subjective Cosmology opens at MOCAD

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Sandford Biggers, From the Moon Medicin performance, All images Courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

The MOCAD kicked off their Fall program this weekend with an opening-night throwdown for Subjective Cosmology by Sanford Biggers on Friday, September 9, followed by an artist talk and walk-through of the exhibition on Saturday, September 10. While most art exhibitions feature an opening celebration, the events unfolding around Subjective Cosmology, including a performance by Biggers’ musical group, Moon Medicin, were integrated with work on display—and a continuation of Biggers’ larger body of work—acting as a kind of charging ceremony, or christening of sorts, for the show.

“I’m not focusing on one particular type of media in this conversation,” said Biggers, during the slide show and lecture portion of his artist talk at MOCAD, “because I consider myself to be a conceptual artist and an inter-media artist.” Indeed, the work within Subjective Cosmology runs the media gamut: kinetic inflatable sculpture in vinyl, multi-layer staged video art and footage collage, live musical performance, found object assemblage, fiber wall mosaic, and even a tiny, delicate origami-style paper horse. There is media-within-media; an object sculpture based on a large-scale industrial spool is displayed in one corner, but also appears in some of the video footage, being rolled around by figures wearing the same feature-obscuring masks donned by the members of Moon Medicin in live performance adjacent to the video collage (and subsequently displayed on a coat rack in the midst of the exhibition). Video clips projected on three walls of the exhibition alternately display process videos of the creation of a recent series of small bronze sculptures, formed by “ballistic sculpting” (aka being augmented by being shot through with bullets).

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Sandord Biggers, From the Moon Medicin performance 2016

Biggers deals almost exclusively in “ethnographic objects,” picked up through his international travels and residencies. Just as he engages with myriad media, Biggers seems to create no boundaries for himself in terms of cultural source material, resulting in a final product that might be considered ethnographic collage. This practice recently drew some fire from critic Taylor Aldridge, with particular focus on a piece titled Laocoön—the original appeared at Art Basel Miami last December, and there is a scaled-up version of the same work currently on display at the MOCAD. The supine figure on display in the piece is instantly recognizable as the titular character of the cartoon show Fat Albert, and his labored posture, made kinetic by a cycle of slight inflation and deflation, signals a dying breath that triggers a host of loaded connotations. Most immediately, one thinks of the show’s creator, Bill Cosby, who has fallen from hallowed status in the wake of rape accusations—but the positioning and the association with breathing cannot help but conflate the figure on display with the victims of lethal and excessive force in a wave of high-profile conflicts with police officers around the country. The leveraging of this loaded imagery has spawned its own kind of art-world fetishization of black bodies—much as the horror of sexual violence against women has become almost banal in its pervasiveness as subject material for wildly popular TV shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or Criminal Minds.

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Sanford Biggers, Moon Medicin costumes on display; according to Biggers they have now been retired and there will be new costumes at the next performance.

Certainly, Aldridge is entitled to her objections around the context and impulses at work in Laocoön, but it strikes me that the question raised by Biggers’ work is more one of appropriation on a broad level. Perhaps Biggers is trading in trauma associated with recent news events, but he deals equally in trauma associated with the slave trade—as with Lotus, an etched glass piece that mashes up renderings of the cargo hold on an 18th century slave vessel with the traditional Buddhist symbol for purity; as with Blossom, which brings the haunting subtext of the American jazz standard, “Strange Fruit,” to bear on the “Jena Six Incident,” involving an altercation between black and white students in Jena, Louisiana; and in Shuffle, Shake, Shatter, a three-part film/video suite on display at the MOCAD, which explores identity formation while abstractly retracing the North Atlantic Slave Trade route, from Europe to the Americas and finally Africa.

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Sandford Biggers, Video projections (still view) 2016

“I was thinking about appropriation, and what does it mean to use these symbols,” said Biggers in his artist talk, referring specifically to a series of works that involved obscuring and embedding objects in plastic Buddha statues, such as B-Bodhisattava. “I realized…all bets were off. You can put anything you want to in this [clear-cast Buddha].” Cultural appropriation is a sticky subject, particularly when one is in the position to capitalize on the potential suffering or ideas of others, and Biggers work raises questions in terms of who is entitled to claim certain cultural cache—and potentially profit from it—and who is not. The most de facto stance is to draw racial boundaries with respect to certain cultural traditions, but the fact of the matter is, the bulk of Americans are descended from willing or unwilling transplants from other places, and one’s ability to claim any given heritage can be tenuous, depending on who you ask.

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Sanford Biggers, Sleeping Giant (detail view) 2016

On some level, Biggers appears to be skimming the surface of so many different cultures that his work at the MOCAD merges into a kind of living collage—it feels unclear, at times, if the whirl of symbols and signifiers have actual meaning, or if we merely live in a society so densely programmed with media referencing other media that you can create a sense of meaning by the old Mortal Kombat strategy of simply mashing a lot of buttons at once. Moon Medicin kicked off their MOCAD performance with a cover of “Fly Like an Eagle,” wearing cartoonish masks, in front of video clips from Cool World and Who Framed Roger Rabbit—both movies that juxtaposed animated and “real” world imagery. The meta-ness of the moment was perhaps enough to feel as though something was going on, but what, exactly, is left pretty widely open to interpretation.

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Sanford Biggers, Seen, 2016

In fact, Laocoön references a statue, which references a piece of somewhat ambiguous Greek mythology. The eponymous subject of the story committed a transgression—in some versions he drew ire from Athena for attempting to reveal the military gambit of the Trojan Horse, in others he disrespected a temple of Poseidon—and was punished with the death of his sons. That Biggers has chosen to double-down on the presentation of this contentious work (literally tripling the height of the piece in this iteration) underscores a double-bind that is as ambiguous as the variations on the tale: Laocoön was either punished for doing wrong, or for being right. In his grasp-and-mash-up, is Biggers doing wrong? Is he right, and all bets are off, when it comes to cultural appropriation? Does this practice enhance understanding and bridge cultural divide, or does it wedge a dangerous foot in the door for people to perpetuate sensationalist imagery and culture-grabbing for their own gain? When does collage as a form generate richness in meaning, and when does it become mere sensory overload?

When dealing in cultural imagery this heavily loaded, these are the questions every responsible viewer must ask and decide for themselves—and Subjective Cosmology is perhaps more fertile ground than most to meditate upon these thorny considerations. As the title would suggest, what you read in Biggers’ cosmos is entirely up to you.

MOCAD