Sadie Barnette: Black Sky
Charlie James Gallery, Chinatown
Through December 1, 2018
By Shana Nys Dambrot
The wide front windows of the gallery are sheathed in pink cellophane. At night, with the lights left on, it’s a beacon of welcoming mystery; inside during daylight hours it’s a bit like another world, a fine mist of pink you feel as much as see. It’s as though in crossing the threshold you put on true rose-colored glasses, lenses that you can’t take off. But while the lowkey delight of this effect signals an optimistic mood, it doesn’t take long to realize that this other world carries a lot of pain in its core. La vie en rose, this is not.
Sadie Barnette works from a perennial foundation of personal artifacts culled from private, family, cultural, and geopolitical spheres. Aspects of these objects and documents, because of her biographical particulars, frequently, dissonantly, poignantly intersect in the most fascinating and frustrating ways. A major example has been her ongoing investigation of the 500-page FBI file on her father, Rodney Barnette, who founded the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. It is a rich semiotic trove, revealing more about the compromised moral character of the government and its agenda than anything else. But it is also the real life story of what happened to and inside a specific family — the artist’s own.
In the way these documents are presented, enlarged to the scale and texture of a painting or drawing, redacted by the FBI and embellished by Barnette, their iconic look and feel is unmistakably a vintage artifact of civic bureaucracy, whose augmentation with smashed pink paint or glitter or a gestural stroke tells the whole story in its pictorial qualities. Closer readings the text are so invasive and judgmental and fictional as to be absurd by modern social standards — and yet it’s clear that at the time it was anything but funny. A thing like that changes a person, it changes everything, it changes a family.
Throughout the exhibition in paintings, drawings, sculptures, installation works, lightbox and video, one thing endures across the array of materials and moments, and that Barnette’s knack for offering beauty and its opposite in singly fused vignettes and compositions. Barnette’s aesthetic presents a cognitive paradox, with style and content ostensibly at odds, and in their uneasy layering embodying the dynamic she’s most keen to express — that happiness and tragedy, promise and loss, persecution and redemption, “glitter,” as she says, “and rage,” can and in fact do exist in the same space. Her experience is unique, and yet what it represents is emblematic of larger historical precedent. Her objects channel broad Pop-infused appeal into something all too real — perhaps to help herself process it, and certainly to help us.
Besides the documents, the exhibition contains a list of ingredients including but not limited to glitter-enameled crushed beer cans, speakers, and computer keyboards; books, charms, bullet holes, diamond rings, family photographs, children’s toys, government documents, mirrors, and so much glitter. Pink, gold, and platinum glitter. Tons of it, never too much of it. In the basement, viewers walk across a wide plush pink carpet to gaze at tiny altars of nostalgia and injustice. In the project space, which is wallpapered like a kind of digital grid, a dark shining disco, beams a lightbox of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. street sign is set against a night sky of billions of stars and rainbow nebulas, merging in its pictorial space a painful, recent, local past with a celestial dream for what is possible. The message is not only that personal is political, and vice versa; but also that joyfulness in the face of fascism is itself a powerful form of resistance.
Charlie James Gallery
969 Chung King Road
Los Angeles, CA 90012
HOURS: Wednesday – Sunday: 12 – 5 PM