June Edmonds: Allegiances and Convictions
Luis De Jesus Gallery, Los Angeles
through June 22
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
A flag, any flag, is the very definition of a symbol, a thing that exists in the service of what it represents, such as a nation for example, or a movement. At the same time, a flag is also a color story, a designed image, and a made object. The American flag in particular enjoys status as both image and object as well as symbol. Its distinct patterns are perhaps the most recognizable and narratively fraught in the world. Laws prohibit its physical destruction, but not its use as elements of corporate logos, fashion items, and superheros. Because of its ubiquity and near-universal legibility, the American flag has made frequent appearances in art history as well. But this is not that.
On one hand, June Edmonds is an abstract painter, a patient and precise wielder of a heavy brush, and a gifted colorist. Her signature style of architecturally placed, thick and juicy applications of pure color is a little like mosaic, a little like textile weave, a little like bird feathers. Her surfaces gleam and that makes every nuanced evolution of a shade, hue, tint, tone, and pigment pop as though in its own spotlight, even as the overall effect of their accumulation creates a gradient kaleidoscope across a finite armature. In this case, that armature, consistent across all the works on view at Luis De Jesus Gallery, is, indeed the American flag.
When Jasper Johns made the same choice, he did so to use the ubiquity of the symbol as a shared foundation, so that the image would not distract from the qualities of his painting itself. Only later did our complexified contemporary understanding of that symbolism interfere with the neutrality of that intention. By the time — now — that Edmonds made her choice, it was very consciously about the weight of the symbol, about what it could mean instead of what it has meant, about the oppression as well as the optimism, the indelibility and the potential for transformation, and fundamentally about what — meaning who — it represents in the first place. But one thing she does have in common with Johns is that this goal is pursued through the mechanisms and operations of thoughtful abstract painting.
In Allegiances and Convictions, each flag’s title makes direct allusion to a particular figure or story from African American history, and each palette is derived from the spectrum of black skin complexions, which in themselves embody the narrative of the global geopolitical diaspora of which American history is such a touchstone. This is part of the reason they are vertical, aka portrait orientation, directly expressing the degree to which the black body is actually the subject of the project — aka its capitalization, subjugation, scapegoating, fetishization, occasional celebration, policing, disenfranchising, and above all, misrepresentation or worse, invisibility.
Among the figures and stories Edmonds brings to light in the works and their titles, include Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who Edmonds learned inspired Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and for whom the painting “Ohio Story” is named. “O.V. Catto” is named for Octavius Valentine Catto, a 19th-century black intellectual and civil rights activist in Philadelphia. “Claudette Colvin” pays tribute to a young woman who was studying government law in school, and refused to give up her bus seat a few months before Rosa Parks.
A series of three draped rather than stretched flag paintings, matte and all black, reference Sgt. William H. Carney, the first black recipient of the Medal of Honor. During the Civil War, he performed a heroic action in which wounded and under enemy fire he held the Union flag aloft until rescued. He was in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, and the paintings, “Carney and the 54th (A Memorial), Parts I, II, and III” indeed have the feeling of mourning and age, drooping from the weight of both the cloth and of history.
Among the main suite of flag paintings (acrylic on canvas and sometimes linen, mostly 74 x 50 inches), some like “Won’t You Celebrate With Me (Maybe on the 5th of July)” are so darkly hued that like whispers, you have to lean in to experience the range of glimmering inflections. Some like “League of Six Nations Flag” are brighter, like red earth or afternoon sun. All have a passage in shades of blue, like denim, or like criss-crossed oceans, in place of the blue starfield of the American template; all are peppered with few or many strokes of anomalous color — red, green, blue, yellow, orange, maroon — which rather than disrupt, punctuate and enliven the dominant earthiness. Also in all cases, though the masonry of the paint is laid in rows like stripes, each is comprised of succinct and discreet single brushstrokes, the better to stand for the individuals represented by these new American flags, ones which make an effort at revision, inclusivity, and truth. Their subject is deadly serious, but their aesthetic presence is warm and welcoming — and their titles are worth googling.