by David M. Roth
If you enter Ebony G. Patterson’s current exhibit thinking that what lies before you are representations of a lavish tropical garden, your misapprehension is understandable. Five immense white-box frames, each packed with layers of fake flora (leaves, roots, vines, tree trunks, tendrils and flowers), occupy about 60 linear feet of wall space. Interleaved among the “foliage” are faux butterflies, insects, reptiles and birds. They, like the plants, consist of hand-painted paper, torn photographic images, cut-outs of various sorts and store-bought ready-mades.
At first glance, the installation calls to mind the assemblages of Judy Pfaff. But, when you look closely you discover that it is a far cry from anything in Pfaff’s oeuvre: The faces, arms and legs of black children and the headless torsos of three adults — the latter attired, respectively, in snakeskin, S & M chains and candy-colored stripes — poke out from beneath the unruly layers of foliage. Thus, Patterson turns the garden, an emblem of beauty and fecundity, into a potent lure, designed to seduce and clobber unwitting viewers.
The piece is but one part of an elaborately staged exhibition that originated at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) called …when the cuts erupt…the garden rings…and the warning is a wailing… The show — organized by Wassan Al-Khudairi, CAM’s chief curator, and supplemented with additional works selected by Christine Koppes, the ICA’s curator and director of public programs — offers a broader view of the Jamaica-born Chicago artist’s work than anything seen previously in the Bay Area. It encompasses all of the ICA’s exhibition space. It includes, in addition to the garden work, several large-scale drawings (two of which are presented as diptychs) and two other equally opulent installations whose material and conceptual roots trace to Carnival, the syncretistic ritual performed at the beginning of Lent in Black communities throughout the Americas.
Patterson calls the garden piece “a trap,” and rightly so. The faces and body parts pictured belong to Black murder victims that the artist downloaded from the internet. The extravagantly clothed bodies are models that the artist photographed; they read, in this context, as imaginary reincarnations. By interleaving these elements, Paterson explodes the garden-as-paradise myth to reframe the violent legacy of American colonialism, as seen through the eyes of slaves and their descendants, most of whom, we can safely assume, were not looking at nature from the viewpoint of, say, Louis XIV. For the former, the garden as we know it existed only within the realm of the masters. (If slaves had any land at their disposal, they used it for subsistence farming and nothing else. Non-productive beauty would have been unthinkable, just as it was for “free” sharecroppers and, later, Black city-dwellers for whom such luxuries long remained out of reach.) So, for Patterson, the colonial-era decorative garden, built by forced labor, functions both as a symbolic burial ground and a launchpad for a series of recuperative acts that play out across the exhibition. Collectively, they fit into a continuum of Black expression that has come to be called Afro-Futurism.
The term, coined in 1993 by a white critic, Mark Dery, doesn’t describe a movement, a shared aesthetic or an ideology as much as it does a state of mind in which Black artists of many persuasions look backward and forward in time to envision a better future. Dery, in his seminal essay on the subject, Black to the Future, drew links between novelists (Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, Charles Saunders); filmmakers (John Sayles); visual artists (Romare Beardon, Jean Michel Basquiat, Rammellzee); comics (Milestone Media); and musicians (Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Cybotron, Afrika Bambaataa and the Jamaican record producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.) While Dery devoted much of his essay to the unique spin Black sci-fi writers put on the genre, he focused more on how Black artists mix African-derived mysticism with white technoculture to create unique forms that are American and Black.
To be clear: Patterson’s works contain no technological components, at least none of the electronic variety. But mystical elements do loom large, as does a contradiction that appears to split the show into opposing camps. On one side are the dancehall pictures, built around images of Jamaican men who bleach their skin; on the other are a pair of wall-to-floor installations that resemble immense voodoo shrines made of textiles. (Each is stationed against photo or painted backdrops made of repeating images and fronted, on the floor, by pearl-draped birds, made of either plastic or resin.) The pictures of deracinated men, ornamented with decorative patterns, are as lovely as they are disturbing. In Jamaica, which is 90 percent Black, skin bleaching, according to recently published reports, is approaching health-crisis proportions. Though it’s popular in dancehalls for the visibility it affords media-hungry participants, it is not, in the main, a statement of defiance, pride or Black identity. People say they do it because they believe it makes them more attractive to potential mates and employers. As such, that would indicate a tacit acceptance of white superiority: the opposite, in other words, of what Afrofuturism advocates. What, then, do we make of Patterson’s exquisite renderings of dancehall fashions? Do they glorify self-abnegation? If so, it’s hard to square that with Patterson’s Afrocentric stance. Whatever the case, there’s no denying Patterson’s painting skills; the dancehall pictures stand up to the best of Robert Kushner, long considered the master of Pattern and Decoration (P&D).
The other two big installations — when the land is in plumage…a peacock is in molting and …they wondered what to do…for those who bear/bare witness — expand on themes of historical transcendence sounded by the garden piece. They are, to my eye, the clear highlights of the exhibition. To create them, the artist piles layers of glitter, applique, sequins, costume jewelry, tassels and brooches atop photo-printed jacquard tapestries. The result is an overwhelming display of bling whose only distant equivalent for sheer glittering excess is Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1903-07). (The other is the space-age costuming seen in Carnival parades, wherein poor people, bejewelled in the same fashion as Patterson’s installations, become imaginary kings and queens.) Patterson’s royal treatment, unlike Klimt’s, affords her subjects the dignity in death that they were probably denied in life, evidenced by glimpses we catch of Black hands and arms sticking out from beneath the accrued finery. In the second installation (they wondered what to do…for those who bear/bare witness), Patterson places the headless bodies of two male figures at the center. While looking at them, I became transfixed by two extravagant articles of clothing, both vests. One carries an off-kilter geometric pattern that Paul Klee could have painted; the other Patterson renders in an electrifying shade of turquoise. Moving from side to side, I found myself momentarily disoriented by reflections emanating from what I suspect are shards of industrial glass embedded in the fabric: the sort that twinkle when baked into asphalt or road signs. They amplified what, for me, was a near-hallucinatory experience, one that called to mind what I felt when I first caught sight of Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton.
Working this way, Patterson joins a cohort of contemporary Black artists that includes Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, Wangechi Muti, David Shrobe and David Huffman, to name but a few. They are waging what Deny calls “semiotic guerilla warfare” against “a dominant culture that has not only been white but a wielder, as well, of instrumental technologies.” Though less technology-enabled than the musicians on whom Deny hangs his arguments, Patterson performs uncanny acts of cultural subversion, reaching into the past and projecting a future which, after more than 400 years, we’re only now just starting to glimpse.
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Ebony G. Patterson: “…when the cuts erupt…the garden rings…and the warning is a wailing…”@ Institute of Contemporary Art San José through September 5, 2021.
David M. Roth is editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.