Black is a color at Charlie James Gallery
By Sydney Walters
Over the gallery door, a red and green neon sign reads, “Black Owned.” Any good artist knows that working with text is difficult. The written word is often taken for gospel over any visual image (see Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 One and Three Chairs). A good text artist intuits the balance between what information is concealed and what is revealed. “Black Owned” asserts that a black person or persons own this establishment. But because Charlie James is not a black gallerist, Martinez’s piece suggests that black is a color as a whole superimposes black ownership through collectives of black narratives and stories.
Near the stairs to the upper deck of the gallery stands a black female mannequin with thick braids curling helmet-like around her head exuding a warrior presence in contrast with her delicate nightgown. This piece is an offshoot of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s multi-media exploration of Kentifrica. One way to understand Kentifrica is to think of it as an ever-evolving origin story. It is a geographical location, albeit contested, that Hinkle is developing by reconstructing a historical archive via personal histories and collective experiences. Kentifrica therefore shifts from physical to theoretical in order to ennoble multi-layered existence. Her Kentifican Headdress is therefore a contemporary rendering of a thoroughly researched yet imagined history.
Adee Roberson’s painting Got to Keep Hanging On hangs behind a drum and cymbal set positioned on the floor. A picture frame with a small photograph tucked in the corner rests against the drum. Roberson has painted lines and curves that converge between organic divisions of pattern on the cymbals and drum. This pattern is mirrored on the painting with the addition of bright, energetic colors reminiscent of African textiles. Textiles were commonly used to relay important tribal and cultural information. Thus, her painting is symbiotically connected with a primitive code that is embedded in pattern and music.
In My Name is My Name II, artist Texas Isaiah installs a small memorial on top of a wooden pallet. “Black Lives Matter” buttons sit on the rim of Catholic prayer candles alongside photographs and small perfume bottles for “Strong Love” and “Protection from Harm” that bookend a open diary. A suicide note is propped up behind an empty bourbon bottle. But the note is written with the sensitivity and word economy of a poem. The letter ends: ‘bury every flower I’ve ever been named/this voice, a flower/this skin, a flower/this heart, a flower/this love/a nameless love.” A dried rosebud lies in front of the framed declaration and other flowers propped up in empty Catholic candles sit waterless and wilting. This installation pays homage to the vanitas painting tradition of a collection of objects symbolizing the inevitability of death. Yet this installation is preoccupied with a specific death. At the end of the poem it says: “R.I.P. Texas Isaiah.”
Multi-media artist Azikiwe Mohammed occupies the second room of the gallery with shelves of thrifted objects transformed into small lamps. Ceramic figurines such as a panther, a kitten, a black Madonna and Child and a black Jesus have a lamp column awkwardly erupting from the irregular surface of the figures. Every piece, from the graceful Alene in a ruffled 17th century dress, to the biking Neighborhood Grocer, are all of African decent, a stark departure from the museum archived European porcelain figurine. Large tapestries drape from the walls and sterling silver and gold plated afro hair picks are neatly arranged in display cases. Airbrushed t-shirts of Aiyana Jones, Gabriella Nevarez, and Tanisha Anderson, three women of color who have been recently killed via police brutality hang on 14k gold hooks. In the act of ennobling common tokens of culture, from decorative figurines to hair combs, Mohammed shifts the dialogue from a simple catalog of items to an assertion of existence within spaces that ignore the significance of black narratives and experiences.
On the opposite wall, Sadie Barnette’s aesthetic is so playful that she slows down the preliminary read of her work and allows the social underpinnings of her work to carry her work from collage to commentary. With low-tech manipulations such as adding glitter, holographic paper and editing Roberta Flack quotes, she eases the viewer into a more sobering reality of urban landscape, fragmented identity, and orange jumpsuits. By curating her work in a tight composition, she maintains the push and pull from otherworldly and humorous to current state of affairs that it is both challenging and a safe space to explore this complex phenomena.
Likewise, Nikki Pressley utilizes a similar push and pull but this time in a visual sense in her paintings. Activation through removal fluctuates between background and foreground with very few hints of a landscape. A tree grows on the side of a hill and its roots intertwine making a tangled heap at the bottom of the painting. The sky is a pulsing, Rorschach test of blue hues. In weight of the invisible (Du Bois homesite) a path runs through rows of dark pine trees leading to a not to distant vanishing point where the trees turn an ethereal yellow. Here, the light at the end of a tunnel, or in this case the light in the forest, is also symbolic of Du Bois enlightenment.
Downstairs, Alexander Reben’s Wax Chromatic installed an interactive light piece that explores human relationships with machines via color on-demand. Two seconds after saying “pink” into the microphone in the center or a room and the room is bathed in vibrant pink hue emitting from floor lights projecting onto the back wall. Reben has programmed 2,000 voice activated colors into his machine and the audience is welcome to command the room to transform into any preferential color. The visual impact of this piece is equally matched by the strong affair humans have with machines and the pleasure derivative of instant gratification.
Finally, Lauren Halsey installed a small portion of The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project. Gypsum board, a building material akin to drywall, is delicately carved with a collage of meaningful symbols, narratives and landmarks. The panels installed in black is a color combine revelatory spectra with traditional stigmas of black culture. Three musicians play trumpets above a chaotic scene of UFOs abducting flailing bodies into the bowels of the ship. Just underneath this, a panel reads: “nobody can stop this war but us.” Like Egyptian hieroglyphics, these panels are a canonical rendering of experiences that gesture and allude to forces seen and unseen.
Black is a color expertly delineates between color expectation and color experience. Each artist presents an innovative modality that claims recognition as an authority spawning revolution and revelation.
This show was curated by Essence Harden and features the works of Sadie Barnette, Adee Roberson, Lauren Halsey, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Texas Isaiah, Azikiwe Mohammed, Nikki Pressley and Patrick Martinez. This exhibit closed on August 19th, 2017.