REVIEW: Gary Simmons: Fade to Black California at the African American Museum
There she is, as if alive. She is haunting and haunted; a Hollywood Miss Havisham in her crumbling mansion. She was once a real person, a somebody, a fond recollection. But now gone gray in her decaying cinema—with seating just for one—she resurrects herself nightly in black and white. She is still big, she tells herself, it’s the movies that have become small. In her day, Norman Desmond hit bullseyes in the fat part of the target, she played to the mainstream and she was the main attraction. Yet, while Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard portrayed a faded star of the Hollywood firmament there existed a parallel cinema industry directed at a much smaller audience, also in black and white but with the accent on the black.
The history of Black Cinema, or “race films” as they were called, has been rightfully excavated by film historians but these movies, made between 1910 and 1950 with all Black casts, though not always Black directors (Edward Ulmer, of Detour fame, directed Moon over Harlem), remain primarily social history instead of cultural artifacts. In Fade to Black, his affecting and illuminating installation, Gary Simmons has extended his current Black cinema resurrection practice and elevated it to a yet richer and discerning expression. It is a fragmented and shuddering film still and title sequence, and it is as haunting as any motion picture classic, at once enduring and ephemeral.
Its installation is of epic scale, a makeshift cinemascope of five vast blackboards, suggesting lessons to be learned. Positioned in the cavernous foyer of the museum the panels recede deeply toward the center much like cinema architecture itself.
Each of these oversized slates contains numerous titles of “race films” but the text is shifted from side to side as if the film projector’s gate and shutter are out of sync. Some of these films featured legendary performers who later and occasionally featured in mainstream Hollywood productions—Cab Calloway, Lena Horn—but for the most part these films and performers have been shunted to a segregated back lot of movie history. The panels, two stories tall, are near matte black and contain luminous white text in courier font, a favorite typeface for screenplays. They have been hand-smeared by the artist and appear liquid, as if in the process of being washed away. Represented here are films nearly lost in a history that constituted a definitely separate, certainly unequal, but absolutely essential entertainment for African Americans who could finally recognize themselves—segregated as they usually were from the actors on screen and the privileged patrons allowed to enter the cinema on the ground floor—as the hero, the villain, and the romantic interest: Bronze Buckaroo, a horse opera with a singing cowboy; Murder on Lennox Avenue, a respected man is falsely accused; Sepia Cinderella, unrequited love is requited.
The recent successes of Moonlight, Get Out, and Black Panther, with substantial Black casts and Black directors, show that lessons have indeed been learned. Yet, while African-American moviegoers were outnumbered on Black Panther’s opening weekend, 63 to 37%, they attended at a rate three times that of their representative population. Instructive certainly, but also evidence that a racial empathy gap remains in White audiences’ appreciation of Black films. It may be an acquired taste, but it is essential learning.
Or, as Boss Jim Gettys warned Charles Foster Kane, “You’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”
REVIEW: Edgar Arceneaux at Susanna Vielmetter Gallery Los Angeles
There are a number of emotional responses to walking through a graveyard: firstly, satisfaction that one is walking at all and not an insensate resident; another, for those seduced by death and rejected by the quick, is the camaraderie of obliging, complementary silence.
A third response, unrelentingly stealthy, is that ghosts are real; sewn to our heels like shadows, unshakeable and whispering. Such is the condition of the African American, false heir to the nation’s patrimony, willing patsy in a cultural three-card-monte, fully knowing the game is rigged yet ever certain of an eventual win. This double consciousness is on full display in Edgar Arceneaux’s exhibition “Until, Until, Until….” The short play (2015)—it gives the exhibition its name and is amplified with large-scale drawings and sculptural objects—is reimagined as a video installation. It explores the generational burden of vacant hope by reviving the long dead vaudevillian Bert Williams, as played by Broadway star Ben Vereen, as interpreted by singer/songwriter Frank Lawson.
Arceneaux restages the performance given by Vereen for the Reagan inaugural but includes the truncated coda (edited and excised like much of black history), a rejoinder of defiance, uplift and pathos against the preceding minstrelsy. His redemptive strategy upended, Vereen seemed to further hallmark the degradative association; Arceneaux amends the record. Projected on a scrim, viewable from both sides and accompanied by backstage theatrical props, it is an enveloping and affecting experience.
A second gallery furthers the conflicted racial narrative with a disturbing collection of found-object sculptures. A chest-high crenelation of seven glass-covered pedestals contain a series of legal tomes from 1896—the year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld segregation as the law of the land with its Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Each book rests on a mirror and is slightly fanned open, but the pages and covers are encrusted, halfway deep toward the spine, with a thick and prickly layer of sugar crystals. The canny use of sugar deepens the narrative of historical subjection and references the previous gallery—Bert Williams was a native of the Bahamas, and sugar was a principal component that drove the slave trade in the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean nations. The slave trade consequently drove miscegenation and the resulting pigmentocracy that preferred the light-skinned mulatto. This was not, however, enough of a privilege for Williams whose light complexion was a near miss; his disqualifying negritude required him to wear blackface, lest there be any confusion. These works deftly remind us of Adrian Piper’s seminal 1988 work, Cornered.
Zora Neale Hurston’s 1942 short, Story in Harlem Slang, includes a glossary. Under the entry “Color Scale,” she lists in descending order: high yaller, yaller, high brown, vaseline brown, seal brown, low brown, dark black. Both Bert Williams and the artist himself would occupy the highest category but it didn’t and doesn’t matter. It is the one drop rule (in Australia it is called “the convict taint”). It is a distinction that never dies.
Just look around; in Black America, the graveyard follows you home.
A few good words with Max
BVS: What drew you to the work of Gary Simmons & Edgar Arceneaux? What about their pieces felt ripe for further exploration? How do you see the works speaking to each other?
MKC: When the associate editor of my magazine, Artillery, asked me to join his crew I told him that I wanted to focus my reviews on artists of color particularly, and underrepresented artists generally. That remit does not exclude White artists but Blackness in Los Angeles is not as present as I have experienced it in Chicago or New York. This is a Latino city and although Latino artists have a significant representation in the galleries here it is not correspondent to their population. I review Latino artists, of course, but also White artists. Yet there must be something that separates that exhibition from the general description. For example, I reviewed the exhibition of a White woman who was well over the age of being thought of as “desirable.” Remember, this is Los Angeles, where one can regularly spot men who have had a little work done. Her exhibition assertively resisted that erasure that occurs when woman reaches a certain age. I also reviewed a White male artist not long ago but he stood out as he is a self-taught and has a developmental disability. I also reviewed an exhibition of internment camp photos from both the US and Canada at the Japanese American National Museum here in Los Angeles.
BVS: There aren’t enough black art critics getting published, which isn’t surprising for many reasons, one being that black artists and writers aren’t thought of as experts of their own work, let alone others’. What’s your experience been writing about art (produced by black or non-black artists) while black?
MKC: You mean other than not being buzzed into the gallery?
My notion of art criticism is one that is enlightening and affirmative––I do not write bad reviews. Why allow someone to later pad their CV by citing a review that actually skewered their work? Finding depth and intelligence in the work is the most compelling search and discovery; it allows me to riff on their assertions and enlarge their work with my associations, expansions, and revelations. In this way the viewer may take differing avenues of approach, not just what the gallery statement claims or the wall text asserts.
The language, of course, must be rich and evocative but also lyrical and penetrating. Artists of color are my chief target but at least half the work in the exhibition must stir me in some way; a quotation, a reference, a rumination. Often there are perfectly competent, technically complex, art-flavored objects included in an exhibition, yet they fail to move me. I cannot review what does not move me. I am not an accountant, I must have an emotional reaction.
BVS: What black visual artists are you excited about right now? Who don’t we know, but should?
MKC: Kenyatta Hinkle is not unknown but her work has a palpable urgency. I look forward to her next steps. Kandis Williams, again not an unknown, create works that are evocative and disturbing. Both have a distinctly feminist perspective that reveals, agitates, and induces.
[Note from the Editor: Both reviews originally appeared in Artillery Magazine].
A former firefighter and public relations executive, Max King Cap is a visual artist from Chicago who now lives in Los Angeles. He also writes about art and specializes in underrepresented artists. He co-edited, with MacArthur Fellow Claudia Rankine, The Racial Imaginary. His work has also been seen in galleries and museums in Vienna, New York (One Planet Under a Groove), Stuttgart and numerous other cities in Europe and the US. Among several awards he is the recipient of Creative Capital and Artadia grants, and was most recently a finalist for the Andy Warhol Arts Writer Grant. He earned his MFA from the University of Chicago and his doctorate from USC.