Sanford Biggers: Dark Star
Eric Firestone Gallery
July 6 - July 22
The evolution of Sanford Biggers has been striking, developing since the mid 1990s into a panoptic body of work that takes in everything from B-Boy hip-hop to Shintoism. Insatiable, incisive and fiercely poetic, his show, Dark Star, at Eric Firestone Gallery in East Hampton, draws the viewer into the radiant cosmology of this complex, interdisciplinary artist.
If the Antebellum South seems at odds with the Buddha mind, well...it is, and it isn't. For Biggers, the reclamation of the African experience is a cultural imperative that extends across boundaries. But he's not a social studies teacher; he's an artist. As such, the interpretive stance he takes on African diaspora, Afrofuturism, Eastern religion and American and world history is global, syncretic (a favorite term of the artist's), sometimes biting and very, very relevant.
The exhibit at Eric Firestone is tight in scope, with a focus on the artist’s quilts, small sculptures and cloud forms. Biggers began using quilts in 2009, drawing on and reacting to the history held within each of these tufted geometries. Addressing the quilts with over-stitching and appliqué as well as stencils, patterning, poured paint and graphic elements, Biggers induces a visual dialogue between past and present. The striking formal drama of these works notwithstanding, the subtext, derived from the underbelly of American history, is paramount and poignant. Legend has it that quilts were used as signifiers along the Underground Railroad – hung along rooftops and fences, even encoded – to indicate safe house locations for fugitives seeking freedom from slavery along that grim route. That the facts are disputed doesn't bother Biggers who counters that, after all, much of history is a composite of evidence, conjecture and folklore.
The encoding and confluence of visual elements in Biggers' quilts, however, is indisputable. Ranging from cloud forms (clouds figure prominently in Tibetan art; cloud shapes were a frequent graphic device in early graffiti; clouds are, said Biggers, “nature's own form of collectivity;” and cloud-computing has changed digital communication), to wave patterns derived from the Edo period, to the image of a lotus blossom reconfigured from the cross-sections of slave ships, each petal a diagram of the ship's lower level where slaves lined the interior, cheek by jowl.
The symbolism continues in the exhibition's namesake, Quilt #29, Dark Star, which utilizes one of many quilts donated to the artist by actual descendants of slave owners. Central to the composition is a reflective globe made from a composite of mirrored squares, an effective symbol of universality, collaboration and things that are bigger than us.
And then there are the stars, the constellations and the galaxies, all of which percolate within Biggers' elastic cosmology, a sort of paean to a global reclamation of the fractured African psyche. Stars and star charts figure heavily in Biggers' image world not only as homage to Harriet Tubman, whose bravery was guided by the North Star, but as an apt metaphor for the type of three dimensional geometry invoked by the artist's cross-pollination of form and content.
Two works in the show employ the concept of music as a transformative verb. In Float, 2013, a large boombox rests at an angle atop a mound of raw cotton, like a small car ditched in a cloud. Untitled, 2013 sports a shattered boombox, its broken edges visible just outside a grocery bag. Slathered with black tar, this work is the second iteration in a series referencing “the brown paper bag test,” a creepy, early twentieth century ritual among some African-American social groups used to determine social standing by skin color. In other words, skin that was lighter than the bag passed the test; darker skin was deemed unworthy of certain social circles. Poised on a crisp white pedestal, Untitled employs a chilling visual pragmatism that exposes the kinds of discrimination that can masquerade as parlor games or the infamous misnomer from the 1970s, benign racism.
Biggers grew up in LA on break-dancing, Rap music and martial arts. An obsessive visual artist from the start, he drew and painted everywhere, on everything. But he was also a musician, integrating funk, jazz, hip-hop and soul into a parallel, synchronal universe.
“Music is the best metaphor for collectivity,” he said by telephone last week, “especially improvisational jazz,” he said. “You lay down some order and then everyone brings their best to the table.”
In the coming year, his conceptual art rock band Moon Medicine will be appearing at Lincoln Center.
Indeed, there is something symphonic in Biggers' oeuvre – with layers of visual, cultural and historical idioms coalescing in multidimensional, super-sensory installations, videos, performances and static works of art. Biggers lived in Japan in the early 1990s, and the influence of Buddhist philosophy and the Japanese aesthetic is clear in his broad body of work. In Hip-Hop Ni Sasagu, 2004, he melted down hip-hop jewelry, casting it into singing bowls (orin) which were then used in a bell chorus at the Joanin Soto Zen Temple in Ibaraki, Japan. 16 participants performed with traditional orin as well as the eight or so hip-hop bells creating a dreamlike, universal musicality. Melting pot, indeed.
Janet Goleas is an artist, writer and independent curator. Her blog, Blinnk, is focused on contemporary art in and around New York City and the east end of Long Island.view all articles from this author