I’ve been on this kick for awhile now about art getting most interesting when it edges toward real life, so the all-too-real, day-apart collision of the profoundly tragic loss of local creative hero, the artist Colin Ward, and MCA’s coincidentally violence-themed openings this month was ironically painful. Each with so much beauty and so much darkness in inverse relationships to the other.
The yin-yang (yeah, I know it’s actually called a taichi) is composed from two complimentary, separate parts. I wanted to write one essay to capture everything I’ve been thinking this month, but the trains of thought are yin and yang, and in order to show either the respect they deserve, they can’t really mix. So, first, the light capturing the dark. The yin. The unique ability of art to get close to violence and subvert it with the creative spirit.
I’ve noticed a trend in many MCA shows where the exhibition is used as a storytelling device. I dig that, so I’ll pay it tribute:
Chapter One, First Floor: Diego Rodriguez-Warner — Honestly Lying
I’m not gonna lie, I’m an impatient viewer and I usually don’t spend too long at art shows on my first visit. But I went through every room of this exhibition several times. There’s a lot to take in, and the massive suite of large-scale mixed-media paintings reward time spent with them.
They’re simultaneous odes to Picasso’s collagist roots, oldschool graffiti, Japanese woodblock (and just about every other kind of) printmaking, et cetera. They’re modern cubism and at the same time trompe l’oiel. The inner painter in me loves their subtlety, their clever, playful sense of space. Their scale, their celebratory, vibrant colors, and the fact that an astonishing number of them were painted in the last year — all of that makes one say, “wow”.
As you enter Rodriguez-Warner’s world — one of landscapes and art-historical references, but also way more strikingly made up of gnashing teeth, severed limbs, skin-carved-out-of-surface — the collage of cultural references boils down to a vision of humanity where the common denominator is inflicted pain.
And like so many artists of the past and present who repeatedly depicted violence in their work, the power comes from the ability of art to take even awful things and present them beautifully. To compress the playing field of all experience into the arena of aesthetics, which is to be a painter, maybe.
Chapter Two, Second Floor: Cleon Peterson — Shadow of Men
Both the first and second floors, if you were to look them up, would be somewhere after Goya, between Guernica and Haring. Where Rodriguez-Warner’s process could basically be summed up as painting illusionistic renderings of the object of an already-flattened image, Cleon Peterson is bringing the ultra-flat into the literal round.
Even while the immaculate 2D surfaces’ uniform matte sheen and hyper-gloss ceramic counterpoints hypnotize, this work has a very compressed visual language. It’s so concise because it’s in service to driving a concept.
Like Chapter One, at its core, this show is about violence. Violence between races, violence between genders (aka violence against women) and violence of the group against the minority. A systemic violence. A barely non-animal violence. A relentless, seemingly inevitable violence. Reductively black and white, both literally and figuratively, very quickly the work starts to feel like you’re walking through a comic. An illustrated guide to dying too soon because of someone’s decision that you should.
Chapter Three, Basement: Arthur Jafa — Love is the Message, the Message is Death
Both of those shows are great, but they’re honestly just primers. They’re the comma-shaped whitespace ocean of the finale’s black dot island. If it’s not obvious, I connected with Jafa’s work in a major way.
And there’s basically only one work — a short found-footage film. But it seems like more, because outside the main gallery, there’s 3 screens with headphones and benches. They’re all playing the same thing — a multiple-hours-long frame-by-frame breakdown of the film that Jafa was filmed giving somewhere. I’m not including stills from ‘Love is the Message’, because you should go watch it, but I’m including the entire video lecture at the end of this writing.
And I really can’t recommend enough that you should watch it, whether on your computer or in the gallery. I talk a lot of shit about how bored I get with the way people talk about art, and yeah, a lot of the time that includes people talking about their own artwork, but this video on the screens outside the gallery is one of the great, memorable exceptions to that. Jafa describes his work in a type of inspiring, humbling, art-smart, street-smart, DTSM-smart, poetic way that me and my friends from KC call The Language. Most of my favorite living writers speak it — Junot Diaz, Marcus Scott Williams, even Rebecca Solnit, each in their own way.
Jafa’s film is about serious stuff that it’s a serious time to be thinking about. But he’s talking to you like y’all are tight, like when he’s talking about a filmmaking technique he invented called Black Visual Intonation aka making micro-adjustments to the speed of short video clips, like making it feel like the video speaks The Language too, to show how twerking as a societal reaction of creative revolt against police-on-minority violence is an emanation, like a jazz-solo / emergent, like a solar flare, like breakdancing. I can’t describe the work better than he did. These are all his concepts.
Set to a Gospel-Kanye soundtrack that includes Teach Me How To Dougie, the film is like some sort of youtube opera, or like a play-doh press if moments of pure culture, at its most tragic, its most victorious, its most familiar, and its most necessary not to forget, were play-doh and the press was a youtube music video playlist.
This work is something America needs right now. It’s a reminder of where we come from as a nation and how even as it seems that somehow the disrespect and subjugation of black culture is growing in confidence everywhere around us, Trump’s America can’t “win” or whatever they’re thinking, because resilience is baked into the Black American Dream, and how its cultural productions are not just resilient but often creatively ahead of their time. The videos outside are about that, because they’re about Jafa’s video. Jafa’s video itself isn’t about all these things I mentioned. It is those things literally.
This set of themes in general is a beloved standard conversation in the artworld, and one I often avoid, but this is both the work and the political time that warrants the exception. It’s worth pointing out that the big picture of Jafa’s message doesn’t just apply to black culture. It’s the poor, the non-english-speakers, the mentality ill, the marginalized groups in society it seems Trump’s America prefers disadvantaged. Everyone’s got their own Language, and the violence ultimately, will be overcome by the sizzling creative beauty it serves to express.
Most of the time…
Stay tuned for Part II/II: The Yang……