by Mark Van Proyen
What does it mean to erase an erasure? Or, to be more precise, what does it mean to erase a whole program of erasures? Refutations, Sydney Cain’s exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD), addresses these rhetorical questions in two complementary ways, hammering home the uncanny point of a return of the suppressed. The title Refutations is a retort to the things responsible for that suppression: institutional racism, genocidal colonialism and the self-justifying narratives alleging them to be “History.” These days, those narratives are very much in the news, as can be witnessed by the current wave of manufactured hysteria pertaining to critical race theory, something no one seems to understand. What can be understood is the guilty anxiety lurking beneath that hysteria, reflecting the lingering blood staining the hands of those who have benefited from the depredations of conquest. Reversing the polarity of this programmatic denial is no small feat, but Cain’s work accomplishes it by way of conjuring the unquiet spirits that prompt that anxiety, allowing them to haunt the arena of public consciousness.
In the MOAD exhibition, one of two by the artist, those acts of conjuration are revealed in a series of nine mid-sized black-and-white works plus one mixed-media installation. In eight of those, ghostly images of groups of people are revealed in a state of partial or complete re-appearance, slowly coming into focus amid an otherwise obscured picture space. They look a bit like a parade of ancestors conjured from a fever dream of historical amnesia transformed into
historical memory. While some of these figures seem to be partially obscured, others are deftly rendered and quite specific. In contrast, others are partially erased back into a state of ghostly non-specificity. Most represent indigenous West African people and some Native Americans — and unless I am wrong about the particulars of regalia, some are Native Australian and Polynesian. They are joined by images of a few depression-era and contemporary African-Americans who appear to be homeless, beleaguered, yet by no means beaten.
Cain’s technique invites detailed description because reproductions fail to convey the full complexity of the works’ surfaces. For example, in two diptychs — Abiku Guides and It’s Time — and We Saw You Come and Go and Come Back Again — each composed of two 48 x 48-inch paintings on panel, dry pigment is worked into multiple layers of wet and dry acrylic gesso. Some obscure, while others clarify the coalescence of figurative imagery. This technique is the second of the two forms of erasure referenced above, showing a respirating process of simultaneous accretion, clarification and obfuscation through which the pictorial content gradually emerges as if conjured from the ashes of a ceremonial fire. Several additional unframed works on paper employ the same technique, revealing a similar cast of pictorial characters. When seen as a group, all of these works suggest a contiguous horizontal narrative — surrounding the viewer, who may or may not feel threatened by the aggregation of images.
The installation mentioned above is called House of the Rising Sun (2021), an apparent homage to the traditional popular song famously recorded by Odetta in 1962 and again in 1964 by Eric Burden and the Animals. It features a vintage rolodex perched upon a three-foot-tall stanchion, centrally located between two pieces of ornate ironwork. These elements are all ensconced in a vestibule that makes the ensemble look like a New Orleans crypt, backdropped by a white-on-black painting showing a schematic circulation diagram. The diagram is structured around several revolving patterns that interconnect to a central source that might be taken as the root system of a tree (of life?) or a schematic representation of ocean currents. The rolodex contains about two hundred cards, many sporting piecemeal typewritten phrases, while others bear fragmentary collage treatments. When I flipped through the rolodex, the first thing that came to mind was a collection of family recipes, which often serve as secret bearers of a generational legacy. Alas, I could not surmise any other organizing principle linking the work’s diverse and cryptic elements.
Cain is the most recent recipient of MOAD’s annual Emerging Artist award, having earlier displayed two large murals (both titled Radio Imagination), in Mothership, an exhibition about Afrofuturism, on view through February 2022 at the Oakland Museum of California. Dust to Dust at Rena Bransten Gallery, features 13 new works. Both shows feature figurative subject matter that’s given a similar multi-layered treatment. However, the differences between the two shows strike me as more noteworthy. At Rena Bransten, the showstopper is large work on panel titled And They Are Not Afraid of the Night Because They Are the Color of It, measuring about eight by twelve feet. In this, the ground/background surrounding a group of 13 figures is more thoroughly worked, revealing a polished, ocher-gold pearlescence. It is an enlivening and ethereal counterpoint to the array of figures presented in two registers: in the top row, eight humanoid spirit entities bear ambiguous witness to a quartet of figures in the foreground, one of which lies in bed, as if stricken by illness or injury. Covering that figure is a precisely rendered quilt that seems to function as a healing shroud, reminding viewers that the patterns of such quilts often did double duty as vehicles for smuggling hidden meanings from one generation to the next.
Dust to Dust also includes four mixed-media watercolors, which are remarkable for what they reveal about Cain’s repertory of techniques. They are smaller than many of the other works, but they otherwise fit with the idea of depicting figure groupings as partially embodied, ectoplasmic ghosts. For the most part, these figures are positioned as if posed for a family portrait, but the bleeding tonalities of the artist’s wet-into-wet technique animate them in a way that suggests that they have been conjured from sacred smoke.
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Sydney Cain: “Refutations” @ the Museum of the African Diaspora to December 19, 2021, and “Dust to Dust” @ Rena Bransten Gallery through February 5, 2022.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.