Edgar Arceneaux at Vielmetter: You have only 1 week to see this exhibition!
Edgar Arceneaux doesn’t make his work easy to love. While this statement seems to be a clumsy introduction to an appreciation of Arceneaux’s work, I know it to be true and I know the additional work Arceneaux requires of the viewer puts some people off.
Let me begin again.
Walking into the darkness of Edgar Arceneaux’s current exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter I was reminded that three previous exhibitions also began in darkness: the first included a concrete block wall with a slide show of sunsets playing on it – at least that’s how I remember the experience. Next there was a show with films of a black comedian – a famous comedian who I didn’t know – his humor was bleak and intelligent as I recall. Edgar’s last show at Susanne’s old space on Washington Blvd also had limited lighting. All of this makes me wonder whether Edgar considers cinema to be important to his work. Dark rooms, flickering light, more intelligence than light illuminating my way through the work – there is a theme here.
As I ponder this I recall bits and pieces I’ve heard and read about that cave with the flickering light – you know, Plato’s cave. That particular one is outside the scope of my knowledge but it seems to be a useful art reference. I think too of jazz and blues clubs I spent my youth in, at the tail-end of an era when legendary performers were still alive and playing around town: Mose Allison, Joe Turner, Nina Simone, Carmen MacRae.
It is funny how close to my heart these shaded-from-the-light memories remain and how much they feel like a part of me, of my essential being.
I’m learning that there’s opportunity for a transfer of knowledge, of understanding, in the dark that may not be possible in the light of day. Just the way a scent will seep directly into the base of the brain – often bypassing our consciousness; so may an unspoken (unsayable?) intelligence find a home in our subconscious or soul when our mind is lulled by shadow.
On the other hand darkness makes people nervous.
Escape with me from the corner of ponderousness I’ve boxed myself into and I’ll focus on what I saw at Vielmetter’s.
In the front room are metal shelves – the kind you order from Safco for inexpensive library shelves or heavy storage – on the shelves are packing boxes – battered, dirty, busted and burned and, finally, crusted with crystals of sugar. Smudged and ugly and covered in sparkly loveliness in a dark room with a pendulous lantern. (The possibilities for metaphor-making are endless – but metaphors being the sticky things theyare, I’ll leave them alone so you can find your own.) (As an aside, read Mark Swed’s review of the Piano Spheres Morton Feldman concert for more about metaphor.)
Do you remember Edgar’s first show with Susanne? At the old skinny space on Wilshire? Drawings of father figures, slabs of colored sugar in a vitrine, a hard cover copy of Alex Haley’s Roots, soaked in sugar – covered with crystals and looking clean and potent and fierce, laden with history and emphasizing a power of place and identity. That sugar made me think of the Haitian sugar that enriched and ennobled western European culture for several centuries – at the expense of African slaves and native islanders. And of “put a little sugar in my bowl” that Nina Simone and others sang. And of Alchemists converting “just stuff” to glittering gold, or thinking they had. And of the process of casting or plating as in bronze for artworks or memories. I carried a soft copy of Haley’s Roots with me for a long stretch in the mid-70’s and read it again and again. There’s a sense of comfort and safety in having a big book and Haley’s particularly revalatory history replaced some of the fantasy fiction I had been reading then, without asking me to give up my sense of wonder.
None of those great notions have left the work for me but now I think my continued experience with Edgar Arceneaux’s work has made them deeper and richer. I think also perhaps that Arceneaux is angry, or angrier than he seemed then. Maybe I’m angry.
This show remarks on the stupidity of institutions and the sadness inherent in people need for institutions to lead them. Us. These same institutions connive to remove the possibility of individual action and to guarantee the eternal powerlessness of people. (We savvy web-based, educated consumers aren’t free from this – each transaction we make every time we take our cues from the constructed culture is part of a pact with the same devil.)
The twilit second room looks like a nightmarish United Nations Hall of Flags. Paintings on fabric hang from the ceiling – figures of god-like creatures and jumbled monikers are stained upon these canvases – using clay and charcoal, mud and smoke – elemental and pre-historic. The lettering jumbles such titles as “banks” “public services” “education” and other institutions and notions that might affirm community but instead are become false gods.
The third room is full of light. The paintings are blue, on paper, and represent the ruins of a city. Of Detroit. Good lord Edgar can render. These are simply lovely, if harrowing. He’s included a photo of a small mirrored sculpture set on the ground where, in 1965, began the riots in Detroit. Nothing remains of the basement space where the fighting and destruction started – it looks to be a brick square with some sort of public art and planned housing in the background.
That charged and difficult to consider moment (of the riots), difficult for any of us to consider honestly and objectively because each of us has an oar in that water – is beautifullyexperienced in the journey from the street outside the gallery and following the lead of Arceneaux’s work through the galleries, from darkness to the relief of light and then to this photo and the realization that at least I had that my relief was premature – that any promise of a greater good or a “mountain top” is to be doubted. I think that we cashed that check of hope some long time ago.
As I state in my title for this post, Edgar’s show closes, Saturday, Dec 11. This show you must see. Think of it as the museum exhibition that won’t happen at any of our local “institutions” for contemporary art and culture.