by Maria Porges
What is the viewer’s job upon entering an art exhibition? In The Devil Finds Work, Rodney Ewing’s exquisitely made suite of sculptures and works on paper, the artist requires us to consider this question even as he answers it. Each piece in the show articulates the ways in which the Black body must navigate through the rules, biases, and bigotries of a dominant culture to survive. Going through the process of comprehending the many levels of meaning embedded in these pieces takes work, in part because Black histories and experiences remain unfamiliar to many white viewers. Looking at these objects and images without doing that work is an assumption of privilege. It also means passing up a chance to access, if only secondhand, the physical and emotional experiences the pieces convey.
In Our ABC’s (2019), three gargantuan wood blocks, each bearing one of the first three letters of the alphabet, Ewing summarizes essential elements of “The talk” that Black men hear at a young age. “Watch what you wear!” “You can’t do what other kids do!” And, most chilling: “Son, you’re a black male, and that’s already two strikes against you.” “I was seven years old.” Trayvon Martin’s hoodie springs to mind, as does the fact that Black children are far more likely to be punished, suspended, expelled or even arrested than white children, often for similar behavior. Ewing has spoken about making the piece at a time when so many Black adults were being killed that he really didn’t know what to tell children about how to survive. At 3 x 3 x 3 feet, each oversized block is just big for an adult to hide in.
In Portals (2015), four old-fashioned doors are joined at one edge, a configuration that suggests a set of revolving doors. Each features a large panel of wired glass, allowing us to see through from one to the next as we read images and text relating to important years in Black American history. 1849, for example, is the year Henry Box Brown, whose face can be seen on the same panel, escaped slavery by having himself shipped from Virginia in a 3 x 3 x 2-foot crate marked “dry goods” to abolitionists in Philadelphia. (He paid for the 27-hour trip with his own savings.) The fact that we see his portrait through wire mesh rather than on the surface of the glass reminds us that his freedom was provisional; after the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in 1850, he fled to England and didn’t return until after the Civil War.
An adjacent door bears the words “16th-19th Century” — the length of time enslaved people supported the North American economy. Below this designation, a diagram of a slave ship shows in detail how human beings were packed into inconceivably tiny spaces. (This image was widely used by abolitionists seeking to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade.) Making clear the enormity of what slavery took away from Africans, Ewing visually frames the ship with a map of a Yoruba palace with too many rooms to count. Enclosing the vessel completely, the palace represents a civilization that slavery tried (but failed) to eradicate by turning humans into bodies.
A third door carries a list of towns founded by Blacks that were lost to history, many destroyed or emptied by economic forces; it appears above a quote from Eudora Welty about the importance of place. On the fourth door, a picture of James Baldwin is centered beneath the date 1963: the year of the March on Washington, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and the year Congress took up Civil Rights legislation.
The significance of the way one door leads to the next is inescapable, as events and images cycle in perpetuity. The freedoms promised in 1963 remain elusive, marred by continuing inequality, unspeakably high rates of Black incarceration and the decimation of Black neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Fillmore district. Baldwin’s important role, both in this piece and in the show, is as the author of the 1976 critique of racial politics in American cinema from which this exhibition takes its name, leading us to ask: For whom or what does the devil find work? For those with idle hands, as stated in the Bible—reminding us of the complex and contradictory ways in which Christian faith, used to justify slavery, became a source of hope, comfort and power in Black communities.
The many print-based pieces in the show deserve the same kind of close reading. Ewing initially majored in graphic design but changed direction after taking a printmaking class in which he discovered a world of creative freedom more compatible with his abilities and his sensibilities. His mastery of the medium is clear; he has figured out how to incorporate his earlier training into images that are at once poetic, allusive and graphically powerful. Each of these unique works involves layering images on collaged substrates consisting of multiple pieces of found ledger or graph paper. Many are hand-colored; some have cutouts suggesting flames or flowing water.
One series, Planned Obsolescence, includes images from the African Diaspora. Some of these feature electronic waste sites being “mined” by children who are forced to extract value from trash at the expense of their health. He La (2021) describes a different kind of exploitive extraction: that experienced by Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old mother of five who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Months before her death, a tumor removed from her cervix yielded uniquely vigorous cells able to replicate freely. They would be used to create the most important human cell line to date—though they were harvested, as was common at the time, without her consent or knowledge. This cell line helped develop life-saving vaccines, even as Lack’s descendants lived with limited access to health care. Ewing alludes to this complexity by overlaying vertical bars of black and grey throughout the space around Lack’s figure. Almost invisibly, in front of her, faint yellow markings represent the chemical formula for mustard gas, a brutal weapon that crippled or killed many but was later used in early chemotherapy research.
By drawing our attention to events and individuals intentionally or accidentally minimized or left out of official historical accounts, Ewing’s work joins that of other Black artists. These include Kerry James Marshall—perhaps the most important history painter of his generation — and sculptor Martin Puryear, whose works place historical African diaspora-related art and craft traditions within a contemporary sensibility. Evoking Marshall’s historical bent and Puryear’s craft, Places of Desire (2019), a sculptural image of two simple buildings, stands as the most unforgettable work in the exhibition for the mystery and bone-deep pain it conveys. On wooden panels joined side-by-side, Ewing built the structures out of tiny parallel strips of lath, angled to create a pictorial illusion of three dimensions. A short text burned into the caramel-colored wood above the building on the left reads: “These are the places where my father learned his body was not his own.” It continues below the building on the right: “At the age of 14 years old, he realized that his autonomy was temporary. His Blackness was the catalyst for violence.” It ends: “He told me this over lunch one day at the age of 73.”
Ewing remembers the day in 2015 when his father, distraught about the killings of Black men and children that were still taking place, told Ewing that he, too, had been 14 the year Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi. Four years later, reflecting on what his father, a strong and disciplined man, told him about his sense of loss as a boy, Ewing made this piece. The building on the left is the store where Till was falsely accused. The one on the right is the barn where he was taken after he was kidnapped by the men who beat and killed him. By flattening the structures, Ewing has turned them into anti-monuments, like the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington DC that sinks into the ground, demonstrating a kind of remembrance without celebration or even forgiveness for the senseless loss of life. The devil finds work in the hands of those who engage in oppression. Structures like these point to the labor in which we must all engage: taking such oppression apart, piece by piece.
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Rodney Ewing: “The Devil Finds Work” @ Rena Bransten Gallery through September 10, 2022.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. Since the late ‘80s, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many now-defunct sites or magazines. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she is a professor at California College of the Arts.