Project Series 11: Edgar Arceneaux
For the last several years, Los Angeles-based artist Edgar Arceneaux has worked with drawing and language. He uses language in his drawings to inscribe a territory or construct a narrative situation or voice that is highly inflected and subjective. In this exhibition, “The Trivium: A Socratic Model for Understanding,” the artist presented a new drawing installation that loosely related language and logic to improvisational jazz, freestyle hip hop, and Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. With this work, Arceneaux furthered his explorations into language and the construction of meaning.
The primary subject of Arceneaux’s work, language, is also the tool with which he explores a wide range of discourses, from universal humanism to popular culture. While examining the relationships between American and European mythologies, he also investigates issues of class and social structure. By linking Dante’s Inferno and Socratic philosophy with the music of Thelonious Monk, Pharoahe Monch, and Pharoah Sanders, Arceneaux juxtaposes “high” culture—the intellectual histories of Western society—with pop culture—hip hop and jazz music. In “The Trivium,” he layered imagery and notations referring to these sources, thus complementing the multiple layers of meanings inherent in the subject matter. By searching for these connections between things, he seeks to shed light on our culture and history.
Arceneaux’s installations emphasize the tools and processes employed in drawing. In the installations, he combines graphite on vellum drawings with objects from the artist’s studio and everyday environment. By including such items as pencils, tape, scissors, mailing tubes, etc., Arceneaux challenges assumptions about the way we view art. This blurring of boundaries connects his work art historically to conceptualism’s traditions of combining text, image, and process-oriented documentation of the artist’s activities. At once intellectual and personal, minimal and elaborate, Arceneaux’s installation explores identity, history, and popular culture.
Edgar Arceneaux’s exhibition was the eleventh in the Museum’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts. During each exhibition, participating artists worked with faculty and students in relevant disciplines.
Essay by Franklin Sirmans
A one and a two… on the ones and twos. Simple concepts leading to complex ideas, surely a primary basis for humans understanding humans. One, me or you, the biblical individual associated with Creation, and the act of creation. Solitude interrupted by the 2, representing duality or opposition, the source of creation with manifestations in life and death, truth and falsehood, matter and mind, the complementary, the divisive, antagonistic dialogue.
The seemingly binary opposition of linguistic referents points to the source of Edgar Arceneaux’s interest in the forms in which concepts are materialized. Ever conscious of the distance that so often separates concepts, philosophical and streetwise, Arceneaux’s work directs us to modes of personal representation and visual presentation in a way that is inevitable, at times questionable, and always innovative. Deriving from the art historical apparatus of conceptualism with its long tradition of combining text with image, and rap’s unperturbed insistence on elevating the word, the word, the word, Arceneaux’s art ably navigates a space where high meets low and pop culture is forcibly slowed for intellectual consumption. His hook, in part, is that while he is making work that formally carries on the tradition of minimal and conceptual art, his execution of figurative drawings made of graphite on vellum carries the work into countless other realms. In effect, he is carrying on and highlighting the conceptualist process of creation as more than a perfunctory affair, yet also complementing, mixing, and reworking. Contrary to the current need for speed, a Kunderaesque slowness is required here.
Though by no means a requirement, if you remember who said bumskiddlybumskiddlybum, then you probably will take an initial liking to Spock, Tupac, Tuvac, an early Arceneaux drawing. That is also to say that Arceneaux’s work evades attempts to designate conventional, closed meanings by directing the viewer to make sense out of his images and language. Endgame conclusions are dead in the water, floating like his seemingly random images. Although, through the careful view, enough is internally understood to grasp the picture. You’re in dialogue.
Arceneaux’s recombinant structures, for instance Temporary Assemblage, Movement B—new drawings and objects from his studio, including tubes of unused paper, rulers, flat boards, and long boxes filled with all the drawings he has made and still possesses—act as signifiers for the intellectually pregnant space in between the work. We are confronted with a plethora of subjective associations that follow the confrontation with Arceneaux’s work, and in that space filled with intertwining narratives, perhaps the pleasure of looking begins. His work questions the way in which we receive knowledge while drawing attention to the way concepts are disseminated and congealed into accepted patterns. Is a tube a tube or a work of art? Arceneaux’s work thrives on this kind of blurring of boundaries. From this point of view, he easily inserts the figures of Pharoahe Monch (Internal Affairs, Pharoahe Monch) and Thelonious Monk (Brilliant Corners, Thelonious Monk), while invoking Dante Alighieri with selected texts displayed as drawings (Translation/Transcription, Movements A and B).
The recent installation titled The Trivium consists of Arceneaux’s trademark graphite-on-vellum drawings and objects from the artist’s studio and daily environment informing the process of creation that is so central to this exhibition. While language is the subject of the work, it is also the means to diverse discourses ranging from universal humanism to pop art, investigating media to a focus on subjective meaning within the context of existence. Though Arceneaux’s work often appears reductive, operating as it does in a minimal palette of hues from black to white, it is the evidence of a search for rigorous thought in a world where language seems increasingly a cacophonous Tower of Babel descending readily into the too often empty rhetoric of advertising slogans. One is reminded of a host of art historical precedents, but most prescient for me are the investigations of language in the theoretical work of Wittgenstein, the signifyin’ popular folk tales of Uncle Remus, the visual art of Joseph Kosuth, the principles of randomness or chance in John Cage’s musical compositions, and the wordplay of Biggie Smalls, R.I.P. All of these precursors, like Arceneaux, who often traffics in unloaded signifiers, recognized the fact that words have meaning because they function as signs.
While The Trivium consists of three essential parts—grammar, rhetoric and logic—this is no scatter art, and it ain’t always logical, favoring the beauty of the disparate mix, the mix that makes you go huh…why…how the…? Each part of the installation integrally places these factors into single objects, though the view is subjective. Brilliant Corners, Thelonious Monk is a drawing of Monk’s famous album cover done on a photocopy of the original cover. Parts of the mechanically generated image can be read through the surface of the drawing, which is on frosted vellum, forcing views through the work to the original and back again. The original is never dead; it is enhanced by the remix, or the appropriation, depending upon your reading of the signs.
Arceneaux has been playing word games in his artwork for the last five years, largely through representational drawings and nomenclature. The Trivium opens the door to another realm of experience for the young artist to investigate the possibilities of his concerns. The implications of his work are the creation of a reciprocal process of exchange in the face of dynamic images and language in a sign-driven silence. “Be Silent. Who Keeps silent inside/Touches the roots of speech,” as said Rilke.
Franklin Sirmans is a New York-based writer, critic, and curator. A former U.S. editor of Flash Art International Magazine, Milan and adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts, he writes regularly for Time Out New York and One World. The editor of Basquiat (Tony Shafrazi Gallery/D.A.P., 1999) and Transforming the Crown: African, Asian, and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966-1996 (Caribbean Cultural Center, Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the Studio Museum in Harlem; University of Chicago Press, 1997), Sirmans has written for several publications including The New York Times, Art in America, Art News, Art Nexus, Tema Celeste, and NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art.
Sirmans has organized exhibitions at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibtions (LACE), Exit Art in New York, Martinez Gallery, CAIS Gallery, Seoul, and Openspace in Milan.
He is currently at work on the exhibition “One Planet Under A Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art,” with co-curator Lydia Yee at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
Vincent Johnson Interview
Foreword to the Interview by Vincent Johnson.
In the work entitled Brilliant Corners, the notion of presence and absence can be measured and marked by degrees, like the hours on a clock. The ghost of the present, the representation of the five phases of the self, both in and out of phase at once, the constant and repeated relations of 3 of 5 and 2 of 5, each owning 72 degrees of what can be construed as a virtual five-part circuitous realm; a whole, cut; a divining guide into time, space time rendered as both memory and illusion, movement as vision, aspects of one’s too many (numerous) dimensions, five views of an idolized self.
There are no ends to these Brilliant Corners.
The Trivium, installation view: loosely attached wall-attached drawings, they bespeak of the non-commanding nature of the gift; curving thoughts floating from walls.
The character of the installation: playful, visual notes, a reprocessing of ideas as a form of temporal display and exhibition, the context of ideas and things brought to fruition for a time. A staff of knowledge in one corner echoes its African origins. A dark floor, white walls, gallery view—ideas collected and exhibited outside of the mind, the mind turned inside out and emptied of its sacred contents. The ephemeral nature of these positions and works, the textual translation projects, transitory and not, walls full of graphic punch, yet some things must be written to be read.
In this work, Dante competes for visual time with Pharoahe Monch in the year 2001. There are Notes from Hell, hosts from the underworld, and Pharoahe Monch, a daylight voice that is banned from the most recent versions of the techno-self: “Banned from TV, CD’s, DVD’s... & MP3’s,”Pharoah Monche, Internal Affairs.
Who has ever considered these parallel worldviews, the old and the modern, similar concerns over certain social economies of the downtrodden, a dialogue between the past and future centuries. Explorations of the selves, negated, dealing with an ill universe. Dual portraits, multiple views, faces emerging from the darkness of time and truth.
Edgar Arceneaux was interviewed by Vincent Johnson at the artist’s studio in Pasadena, California, June 29, 2001.
When I look at your new drawings that are based on architectures, not merely the architectonics, they seem to be referencing time, aged materials, aged matter, and that’s about old culture, yet this place (L.A.) is supposed to be a new culture, the New World.
What also struck me was your project’s relationship to music, and (your) wanting to emulate some forms that are not recent; for example, bebop, playing off of the formula of that work.
What attracted you to that structure? That it’s free, that there is a certain type of innovation taking place, in the way it is perceived now, as versus the way it was perceived when it was produced?
But that is the view of the audience over time, not of the players.
I am assuming your attraction to jazz from the 1950s is not how it was perceived in its inception, but how it is perceived today.
Separately, it is the structure of the work, which has not changed. It has become a text.
I am interested in the music as much as you are.
Traditionally, in my work the subject of the drawing is articulated through what the drawing is pointing to. The subject can then become the vehicle for certain visual ideas. The drawings are never wholly illustrative. By choosing objects arbitrarily, I attempt to displace the subject, pointing to something else, forcing you, I hope, to look elsewhere. Because of the random choices that I make, I am attempting to erase time and realize events in their presentness.
Getting to the point, I was led to using bebop music… it is in part coincidental. I had bought two CD’s with a friend of mine, and as we were walking back to work she pointed out that both albums had a Pharoah in them. It was an Alice Coltraine CD featuring Pharoah Sanders and a hip-hop CD by Pharoahe Monch called “Internal Affairs.” There is a very general relationship there, but then if you continue to look a little bit more, there might be additional threads connecting that could further Intertwine. Then the investment in the forms continues to build within that process of digging, creating a sort of working relationship. This then allows for other disparate elements to come into the equation.
You don’t have to leap very far to see a parallel between bebop and hip-hop music. It wasn’t that I was invested in how the music manifested itself within the culture, even though that was a part of it, but there is something about the way in which improvisational jazz and freestyle hip-hop works that I found very exciting. As my research into these two musical forms and Pharoahe Monch and Sanders continued, other elements started to float in. Eventually, I discovered the magic of Thelonious Monk and the different aspects of his life and style. As in my previous work, you find a play on words and names, but it was clear to me in this project that this was just the point of entry. The play on language was to evidence further the intertwining of narratives and texts. Later in the process of creating and thinking about the work, Dante Alighieri and Socrates became integral parts of the web.
Bebop jazz reflected the shifts that were occurring at that time; it came out of wartime jazz and became its then newer form when blacks returned to the U.S. after the end of World War II. The shift from the city to the suburbs, beginning of the Cold War, inner-city crime and poverty, the country’s realization that utopia was dead, and many other factors, created quite the turbulent time for everyone. Jazz reflected that. Well, I guess it did more than just reflect it…I guess it deconstructed it in a way, because it defied logical conventions.
In my opinion there was a certain sort of subject position constructed within the music itself that could have been a really radical sort of subject position to have at the time, during the Seventies, and maybe even later.
V: What are the specifics of the subject position you are referring to?
E: It seemed as though the music attempted to avoid or shake off any sort of predetermination. There was a certain breaking away of forms and a constant process of reinventing; it was not necessarily being tied to any certain conclusion or direction. Since the production of the form occurs within the present moment, it undermines narrative, symbolism, and other themes that are tied to memory. The presentness for me then displaces and decentralizes the subject, allowing the freedom for movement.
V: To have that kind of non-formulaic structure, as opposed to the structure found in the symphonic, where the act of interpreting a story that’s already been told is the key to its power.
That leads to your idea of translation, of reinterpreting and transition. I think it was something within. You said before that you liken it to the rhizomatic model. For you, bebop predates the rhizome.
E: Yes, but for me, it doesn’t matter which came first, it is most intriguing when you think of how similar the ideas are but how they came from very different places.
That’s probably why intuitively I was drawn to Socrates and his mastery—that he was the greatest interpreter of how a discourse could function. In the model that Socrates constructed, there has to be a sort of exchange that generally has to occur within an open social structure, where you have a number of players involved, but you don’t know when they will move in and out, and there can be this sort of coalescing of ideas over time, things can build up and completely collapse again, like in certain forms of jazz. Over time, groups of things become something collectively that they could not have otherwise become.
V: For me it’s the way you layer your work, there seems to be a veil, a mask. Something is hidden. You work with vellum, and your project is structured so that everything cannot be read initially (or all at once), it literally slows you down, and invites you to come close to the work; only upon the closest form of inspection will you be able to read the work completely.
E: I know that there is something about the way I construct the work that produces a type of intimacy. Maybe the transparency of the veil serves to reveal the necessity for an intimacy that will reward the viewer. A brief, fleeting engagement does not reward the viewer in the same way.
When the work starts I cannot articulate its generation. The process of seeking out and seeing in is what the project is about.
V: It’s like searching for oil. You think there is something there but you can’t be sure until you dig down deep.
E: It’s not about always being fruitful, it's the investigation and its process, which should be forefronted as most important.
The work then becomes the trace of that activity.
That might also be why I’ve stuck predominantly with drawing, as opposed to, say, painting or sculpture, because there is that evidence which I believe is due to the immediacy of drawing—it’s a little more direct, a little more tactile… also, the ability to simultaneously erase and leave a trace of an action is something that likens itself to the act of remembering.
V: It’s a lot more direct. I consider drawing to now be the last act of writing, especially now that the personal computer revolution threatens to erase the existence of the written word.
The thing that now starts to stand out for me as I go through your project notes is how disparate, how seemingly far afield some of the different source materials appear. But when I come back to your work here again, everything makes sense.
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. He has an MFA from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California; a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has participated in exhibitions at P.S.1, New York City; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Center on Contemporary Art, Seattle; and the Studio Museum in Harlem. His fiction has been published by Smart Art Press in Santa Monica, California, and by Distributed Art Publishers in New York City.