Edgar Arceneaux’s work in sculpture, drawing, and film reflects on cultural and personal memory, and is informed by the belief that all modes o inquiry and systems of knowledge are contingent. His recent projects consider a number of complicated personal legacies and, more broadly, the erasures and connections between seemingly disparate historical narratives.
By Dimitris Lempesis
Photo: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Archive
Edgar Arceneaux in his solo exhibition “The Downfall Paradox” creates narratives around black history that cast doubt on the possibility of trusting the historical record, and invite the viewer to unpack strata of time and space. Employing strategies such as layering, reflection, accretion, and occlusion, Arceneaux embraces the act of recovery as a way to approach the complexities of, and revisions to, misconstrued histories. His installation and live play “Until, Until, Until. . .” (2015-17), involves stage props, curtains, and a projection to create a mise-en-scène that collapses the past (the stage setting of an original performance) and the present, in the form of that performance’s re-creation. It is based on Ben Vereen’s controversial 1981 blackface performance at President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ball, which was inspired by vaudeville legend Bert Williams. The work shows fragments of Vereen’s original performance, which eventually become blurred beyond recognition, on a monitor that is also the reverse of the mirror on the actor’s makeup table. The full performance included a second act that was cut from ABC’s television broadcast, where Vereen, having been refused service at an imaginary bar, removes his blackface while singing Williams’s mournful “Nobody”. Featuring the refrain “So until I get something from somebody, sometime / I’ll never do nothin’ for nobody, no time”, the song was meant as a scathing indictment of the conservative, mostly white gala audience. In the gallery, translucent curtains divide the stage. On one side, the viewer watches the historical performance through the veil of time; on the other, a projection shows Arceneaux’s 2015 play where actor Frank Lawson, playing Vereen, enacts the performance as it was originally intended. Arceneaux layers materials and histories, deploying mirrors to connect viewers and what they see. While Lawson performs his role as Vereen, who was himself performing the role of Williams, the contemporary audience is likewise standing in for the 1980s audience, both similarly indicted for their complacency in the face of racial inequality. Complementing this work is the sculpture “Library of Black Lies” (2016), a labyrinth where the viewer must walk a convoluted pathway that echoes the obfuscation of his or her gaze. Dozens of crystallized books (dictionaries, encyclopedias, art history tomes, books on African American history, and more) populate this maze, their texts partially or entirely obscured by sugar crystals that transform them into abstractions. Mirrors within the structure convey a sense of the infinite, reflecting and refracting texts and viewers. Experimenting with the library as a place of knowledge containing an infinite number of histories, here Arceneaux creates a kind of Borgesian “Library of Babel.” It is a library that defeats its own purpose: instead of enabling knowledge, it obstructs it, hides it in a labyrinth.
Info: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), 701 Mission Street, San Francisco, Duration: 1/12/17-25/3/18, Days & Hours: Tue-Wed & Frisun 11:00-18:00, Thu 11:00-22:00, www.ybca.org