Installed in a city many consider ground zero for Black Lives Matter at a particularly volatile moment in U.S. race relations, Adam Pendleton: Becoming Imperceptible at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in New Orleans is charged with a political urgency at odds with the artist’s restrained forms, prosaic typography, and cryptic citations. Yet the triumph—and challenge—of Pendleton’s language-based enquiries reside in their capacity to interrogate system and process as provocatively as they explore the African American experience. The show’s title, Becoming Imperceptible, evokes the ontological investigations of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who coined the phrase, and a specifically black epistemology regarding questions of visibility that have long occupied African American intellectuals. Pendleton’s often-repeated claim to “incompleteness” as the most ethical form of art and being resonates in the title and the work exhibited. If skepticism of artistic authority underpins his work, a countervailing affirmation of absolutes, drawn from a troubled racial history, charges it with a sense of moral outrage and political promise.
Two murals, Yes But (2008) and Victim of American Democracy I (2015)—labeled with the exhibition’s single, solitary wall text, reading, “To go unnoticed is by no means easy”—give form to this central antinomy. Yes But reproduces part of an equivocal quote from French film director Jean-Luc Godard in paradoxically clear sans-serif print. At once emphatic and elusive, the abruptly truncated prose insinuates Deleuze’s conception of transcendence, described as an effacement of individuality, perception, and perceptibility. Victim of American Democracy I, in contrast, dissects and reassembles the spray-painted slogan “Black Lives Matter,” a stable in Pendleton’s repertoire since the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. Transformed into a virtually illegible composite, the mural, which also references Malcolm X—solemnized as a “victim of American democracy”—imbues the challenge of “going unnoticed” with the particular dilemmas of black subjectivity: the paradoxical struggle of African Americans for visibility as a means of political agency and desire for invisibility as a means of physical survival.
The visual dissonance of the multi-part installation, Victim of American Democracy I, including found images affixed directly to the wall at uncomfortable sight-lines and orientations, establishes the dizzying scope of Pendleton’s minimalist-collagist sensibilities, while providing a working introduction to the exhibition. Despite the visual cohesion produced by the exclusively black-and-white production, Pendleton’s recourse to remote, unidentified references—assiduously quoted, decontextualized, and atomized—simultaneously invites and frustrates interpretation. Appropriate to Pendleton’s ambivalence toward assigning meaning to his work, the exhibition’s organizers provide little interpretive guidance; a printed gallery guide in lieu of object labels and wall texts offers detailed descriptions of works while leaving the heavy lifting largely up to the viewer. The result is an exhibition that often resembles an enormous site-specific installation, in which reoccurring images, themes, and serial examples generate dialogue through coincidence and cross-reference.
Two of Pendleton’s most fully elaborated and compelling series, Black Dada/Column (2015–16) and Systems of Display (2015–16), reveal the force of exchange between his individual projects. Black Dada reproduces Sol LeWitt’s 1974 installation Incomplete Open Cube by photocopying, enlarging, and then hand-tracing the image; each individual iteration is marked with a single typeset letter from the title phrase, which is left deliberately incomplete when the series is exhibited. Systems of Display, in turn, consists of silkscreening onto a mirror crudely photocopied images related to West African independence movements of the 1950s and modernist projects of the 1920s and 1930s, which are then positioned beneath a glass lid labeled with a truncated word taken from an unknown yet discreet context. In isolation, the projects probe the open structure of language and the fluidity of text and image; taken together, however, the works critique historical hierarchies, underscoring the complicity of art in the maintenance thereof.
Drawn from Amiri Baraka’s 1964 poem “Black Dada Nihilismus,” the title Black Dada acknowledges the Harlem-based Black Arts movement, the artistic branch of the 1960s and 1970s Black Power movement, which coincided with the rise of Conceptualism. Similarly, the pictures of African liberation in Systems of Display, largely taken from Okwui Enwezor’s 2002 exhibition, The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994, engage alternative modernisms and modernities native to the Black Atlantic. If references to occluded narratives rectify history, the idiosyncrasies of the mirror, the clumsy distortion of the photocopied image, and the synchronic references to geographically disparate events undermine teleological and empirical claims to historical truth.
A suspicion toward the rational organization of knowledge occupies the core of Becoming Imperceptible, which issues its strongest social critique through epistemological explorations. While themes of political resistance loom large, Pendleton’s interventions complicate rather than elucidate the terms and language of protest. The tension between art and politics poses a particular dilemma for the organizers, not only owing to the polysemous quality of Pendleton’s aesthetic, but likewise to a curatorial tradition that arbitrarily privileges identity politics in the exhibition of African American art. Curator Andrea Andersson avoids these traps, framing Pendleton’s serial repetition as civil disobedience in a brief yet artful essay focusing on the defiant stammer of Herman Melville’s resistant bureaucrat Bartleby the Scrivener. Pendleton’s own “Black Dada Manifesto” (2008), also reproduced in the accompanying art-book/catalogue, provides additional understanding, confirming an ironic regard for logic and identity.
Indeed, reason becomes a tool of resistance in the artist’s conceptual arsenal, elucidating Pendleton’s tendency to liken his Black Dada paintings to protest signs. His restrained aesthetic challenges tropes of “primitive” irrationalism that fueled the historic avant-garde’s interest in the Other and undermines charges of black rage long employed to delegitimize race-based politics. References to the utopian projects of Bauhaus and De Stijl and to African art as both modernist appropriation and alternative modernism suggest the competing connotations of Western rationalism as a symbol of the inclusive promises of Enlightenment modernity and the exclusionary logic of European superiority. Related questions of universalism and particularism intone Pendleton’s explorations of language, which transgress normative dictates of conventional semantics. His geometric Code Poems (2016), for instance, echo nonlinguistic communication systems such as Morse code, semaphore, and maritime flags, with ceramic forms arranged in patterns on the floor. Notes on Black Dada Nihilismus (Proper Nouns) (2009) likewise alters the narrative function of poetry, reducing Baraka’s poem to an index of martyrs, visionaries, and revolutionaries. Dispassionately displayed as a typeset list, the work tempers the universalizing gesture of the Code Poems with the particulars of subaltern struggle, suggesting alternative encoded messages that defy easy perceptibility.
The video My Education: A Portrait of David Hilliard (2011–14) reiterates these themes through the narrative of Black Panthers founding member David Hilliard. The installation provides a stunning conclusion to the exhibition, distilling the visual cacophony of the first floor into a single, sublime exposition on protest, history, truth, visibility and transcendence. Projecting different images on three enormous screens, which intersect rather than illustrate Hilliard’s likewise fragmented narrative, the multi-perspectival account of the quixotic rise and violent decline of the organization refuses causality or linearity, underscoring history as vast, divergent, and elliptical. Meanwhile, unambiguous parallels with Black Lives Matter trouble easy divisions between past, present, and future, while suggesting inevitabilities and absolutes. At one point, discussing his own radicalization, Hilliard recalls attempts to read Martiniquais anti-colonialist theorist Frantz Fanon, branding it “harder than reading the Bible.” “It starts with a hungry stomach,” he quips, “I understand that.” The laconic remark is redolent with the themes that drive Pendleton’s work: America’s protracted racial struggles, the constancy of black resistance, and the ultimately human compulsion toward liberation and transformation.
The three large-scale prints, Untitled (water) (2014), in the far recesses of the third-floor gallery bridge the epistemological, ontological, and political questions posed in Hilliard’s statement. The series, which abstracts Josef Albers’s 1929 photographs of water into rippled patterns silkscreened onto large mirrors, extends the original study of disorder in nature into the realm of subjectivity, reflection, and self-perception. The alternation of the water works with gallery windows of roughly equivalent size complicates oppositions of internal and external, while reasserting place into a site-specific installation that seems curiously indifferent to location. Pendleton is well aware of the significance of place, having famously hung the Black Lives Matter flag outside the Belgian Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennial, drawing attention to colonial atrocities in the Belgian Congo. Racial polemics permeate New Orleans, perhaps nowhere more acutely than the site of CAC. From its windows one looks onto the Crescent City Connection—the bridge where armed police from across the Mississippi River forcibly turned back the mostly poor, black residents trying to escape the Convention Center and the Superdome during the Federal Floods that followed Hurricane Katrina. Located in the rapidly gentrifying Warehouse Arts District, CAC forms part of an imaginary of recovery, widely celebrated in the national media during the bombastic commemorations of the ten-year anniversary of Katrina. Yet such accounts occluded black voices, repressing alternative narratives of the elimination of public housing, the gentrification of traditionally black neighborhoods, and the rising cost of living that disproportionately affects the poor. In this context, the exhibition appears incongruously hermetic, despite—or perhaps because of—Pendleton’s commitment to “incompleteness” that paradoxically jeopardizes the dialogic capacity of art and society.
Assistant Director/Administrative Assistant Professor, Stone Center for Latin American Studies, Tulane University
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