Modern Ancient Brown, the exhibition by McArthur Binion currently on view at the Museo Novecento curated by Lorenzo Bruni was opened and closed in this moment of extreme uncertainty and carries with it shelter, healing and solace.
The show develops through three rooms on the ground floor and institutes a paradox where modernism and antiquity conflate into what seeks to disrupt the frameworks and assumptions that accompany both terms as well as contesting the exclusions and the violence that these words continue to advance in the history of Western art. It is an elegantly adorned and politely explained exclusion from all canonizing doctrines and a systematic violence of cut off peripheries. It is an exclusion masked by altruistic outreach for the gated communities of the gatekeepers of art history where the extension beyond the gates serves principally to demonstrate the benevolence of the communities themselves.
Walking into the exhibition carried with it a spiritual resonance and a profound feeling of being saturated that flooded the space. There is a way in which the accumulation of experience, the learning and experimentation of over five decades of painting can be present in every mark of a seasoned artist’s work and this most recent body by this Mississippi-born, Chicago-based artist confirms this notion. Saturation was indeed the first thought to come to mind and it is also the one that would not be moved as the work sunk into me and me into it. Here, despite the role of saturation in an understanding of color theory, this saturation felt different. Far from evoking the proximity of the palette to the primaries, this was psycho-physical and seemed to have little to do with optics or hue. It resonated with acoustic saturation or those subtle distortions that complete the sonic mix of a recording with that which is unrepeatable, unplanned but intentional. Or perhaps it was the perception of the physicality of layers of ink sinking into the porosity of the one-inch-thick cotton pulp of the handmade paper. It may have been the rhythm of the repeated arch that sweeps the room from painting to painting only to sink beyond visibility in the black-on-black piece that rests beside you when you walk in the door.
In this newly extended period of social and physical distancing there is a sense of absorption of the ages of tension, which are advanced by a “modern” society that keeps moving at a pace where the capacity to slow and reflect upon all that we endure is elusive at best. Painting brings us into space where time functions differently and is dictated by other factors. The medium carries with it the impulse of antiquity or the desire to leave a trace and the opening of this exhibition, in a moment of limited access and regimented time slots, while keeping us from sharing experiences, permits us to engage in the socio-spiritual realm of letting the work resonate, appreciating the space, its history as a site of religious cloistering, the fictions of the frameworks repurposed for art, the invitation to leave at the door all simplicity and surface, to dive in, but not swim.
The body of work that welcomes you into the space was created in its entirety during the period of lockdown in the artist’s studio in Chicago. A lockdown that was inevitably injected with a monitoring of the spread of infection and rising death tolls and one that was ignited by the awareness of erupting protest in the face of consistently dismissed Black death. These works form a metaphysical sanctuary where the autobiographical morph with the collective need for witness. It is in this altered dimension of time and space that the notion of audible saturation begins its enhancement of form and content. Imperfections and distortions fuel harmonics and presence that resonate from the works to the space onto the viewers of these paintings. The formal tension of shifting proportions modifies the echo, which is, in turn, teased out by the vaulted ceilings. Depth and warmth prevail. At the press release, Binion talked about the paper having been made for him many years prior and awaiting in his studio for the appropriate time. There is a form of mental labor that is initiated by a first encounter with a new surface, a new material. The accumulation of potential work that is layered into these objects make them resonate even before the artist brings his hand to them. It is intriguing that the artist states that he had never used this material before and will never use it again as if marking a sedimentary shift that seems necessary in this historically volatile moment. A cleansing of pallet or a purifying of the filter.
Traversing the doors to the next room, a rhythmic repetition is evoked once again with the shifting of space and palette of the smaller works carrying the eye around the room. These works, created from fragments of the artist’s personal phone book generate a range of conflicts; that of the voyeuristic impulses enacted by access to this material and the privacy that they encompass and that of the tension between abstract form and tangible content. Through a recognition of names from the New York art world and that of other cities, an era and a community of artists and art workers are present in the room. Those that fostered exchange and dialogue with the artists perhaps, those he mentored, those patrons of the arts who have the artist’s works in their collections. Traces of the system itself of exchange and support. These works are an invitation behind the scenes into the inner workings of one dimension of the oft underappreciated labor of art, which necessarily extends far beyond the studio, but inevitably makes its way in the door. These names, addresses and numbers are layered, in part obscured, in part cemented in time through the painterly process, literally embedded in matter. They are also underwritten by the choices of the artist that extend forms of realism and reality embedded in these tools of the trade that are as formal and aesthetic as they are a product of artifice.
Set apart from the other works, in the obscurity of the 15th-century chapel, where the altarpiece has been replaced with a monumental work by Binion fitted into the ornamental frame of the original, we are transported into a spiritual dimension enhanced but also contrasted by the space. The duplication of rotating squares from the phone book across the painting, meticulously layered behind a fencing of black lines like a timeline or a factory punch card marking the artist’s time and hand. This work, drawing upon an opportunity to reconnect with an underexplored aspect of the artist’s biography, his father’s occupation as a pastor, disrupts modernism’s confiscation of the grid as a neutral and natural marker drafted into art texts and history books as quintessential to modernism. This quintessentiality is reluctant to mention its positionality as white and male and frequently evacuates a formal continuum hacked away through the act of this theft that claims ownership of a form that is as ancient as time itself. This exhibition is a refuge with a reminder, an affirmation of an artist whose presence, across generations of art worlds, has redefined peripheries and whose labor and mind provide solace in the depths of expanded space and time.
This article was published in Issue 275 of The Florentine: A Black History Month Florence special.