Black Dada, Wall Works, and the Art of Being Purposefully Obscure at the Baltimore Museum of Art by Angela N. Carroll
Adam Pendleton’s Wall Works, a term he coined to describe his massive floor-to-ceiling collage installations, are subtle, subversive, and saturated with obscure and purposefully convoluted content. On display at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s expansive lobby wall and in the Front Room Gallery, Pendleton codes his work with bold black and white iconography. Although they resemble graphic design and industrial printing methods, Pendleton’s iterations evade clarity, questioning about the role of language in social resistance movements.
Unlike the lobby, where Pendleton’s designs filled one two-story wall like wallpaper, the exhibit in the Front Room is completely immersive, with Wall Works on all sides. I wasn’t sure how to respond to the work when I first encountered it, and could not help but play the chorus from Erykah Badu’s classic anthem “… & On” in my head: What good do your words do if they can’t understand you / Don’t go talking that shit, Badu. Badu.
Wall Works warrant deep consideration of languages, both known and unknowable, and offer a push and pull between the legible and illegible components of abstraction, the histories I could discern and the ones too obstructed to decode.
I wondered what is gained by the abstraction of radical pedagogy? What is lost by the obfuscation of political language and avant-garde movements?
I had the opportunity to speak with Pendleton about his process and intentions and pose some of the questions that plagued me while interacting with his work. Our conversation will be relayed here in the same stream of consciousness, open-ended format in which it was discussed, my musings over the work, accompanied by Pendleton’s contextualization or clarification where appropriate.
“I often say that abstraction is another word for freedom,” says Pendleton. “I am very interested in looking at the relationship between abstraction and representation, representation and abstraction.”
The collection activates the tenants of Black Dada, (the artists muse, manifesto and process), to deconstruct the political language of Black liberation, art movements, and American history. Pendleton reduces essays, quotes and protest slogans into minimal black and white collages, silkscreen prints, and adhesive vinyl.
Wall Works are literal graphic visualizations of speech that fragment language and superimpose its pieces onto photographs depicting significant eras of creative expression. Letters from the texts are spray-painted, scrawled and superimposed onto archived photographs, white or black backgrounds. The compounded meaning, and illegible language of the work, stays true to the unconventional aesthetics of Dada. In Pendleton’s iterations, abstraction is used to assess and reframe cultural, social, and political histories, to disrupt linearity, and expand associations with freedom.
I read the works as a riff on Dr. Henry Louis Gates, “signifyin(g)” or Zora Neale Hurston’s scholarship about the visual characteristics of black expression. In Hurston’s assessment, oral black language maintains an illustrative quality that she likens to hieroglyphs and canonizes within a greater African diasporic historical landscape. The intersections of art practice and black speech draw unexpected cognitive correlations. Subdued, assassinated, or misunderstood language contrast with artists movements that are now revered by the canons that demonized and marked them degenerate. Questions about freedom, whose language is allowable, and whose creations are detested all emerge.
Pendleton’s work consumes the space in which it operates. It polarizes and layers, appropriates and establishes new meaning. To observe his installations requires a constant state of physical and intellectual dexterity. The juxtapositions Pendleton presents consider the politicized role abstraction has always played in contemporary art and history and their scale literally forces you to move around the space. It is impossible to view the enormity of the work from one standpoint; one must tilt and move, step back and stand as close as the museum guards will allow you to take in the density of the messages relayed.
But questions persist. I asked Pendleton to speak more about this exchange between the content of the work, and the audience’s perceptions about the meaning of work.
“I hope there is a sense that the work is many things at once,” says Pendlton. “Black Dada queers what black means, in relationship to history, language, and abstraction. I am using black as an open-ended signifier. It is not one distinct thing.”
Adam Pendleton. A Victim of American Democracy IV (wall work), 2016
It is ironic that much of the language Pendleton employs is critical of systems, institutional constructs and exclusionary nationalism, and yet, his appropriation of that language into avant-garde art, places the work in an exclusive, and often exclusionary canon, that prompts a direct conversation with museums and galleries about the constraints they maintain for artists and audiences alike.
“My work is tethered to abstraction,” says Pendleton. “Abstraction is, yes, about illegibility, but it is also an active and productive mode of representation. There is deep content embedded in the paintings by way of the language that is fragmented and deconstructed in them. How do we make meaning? It’s a question of potential.”
Pendleton composes his collages from historic and contemporary cultural remnants, picking apart reference material and resituating the sections he extracts within new creations. An art of overlay, and a residue of representation recur and inform the collection. In “what is …/Chagall” and “if the function of writing,” significant occurrences in art history and contemporary struggles for equitable civil liberties conflate and converge into a dense strata of visual language.
Pendleton overlays images of an iconic painting by Marc Chagall with fragments from the query, “WHAT IS BLACK LIVES MATTER?” and then replicates the previous action by incorporating a smaller photograph documenting a Bauhaus artist with his camera, and scrawling “IF THE FUNCTION OF WRITING” across the image. Of the two fonts at play, the lettering referenced from Black Lives Matter dominates the wall and the Chagall photograph. Those juxtapositions triggered obvious questions for me about identity and privilege, demands for the recognition of varied identities, and the historical sites of resistance that have been embodied by art movements that predominantly featured white male artists. The work draws profound parallels that illustrate nuanced references to the varied function and pursuit of freedom.
The work also maintains a meta-meditative quality. As a viewer you lose yourself in the rhythm of the gestural language, the repetition of forms and letters within the black and white palette. But also, one gets lost in the possible correlations Pendleton may be drawing between periods in time, art and political movements. I wondered if he considered his process and the resultant collages he produces to be a meditation on histories of written and visual language, socio-political movements and the body politic.
Pendleton’s response: “I’m interested in the visual representation of rhythm. How can something you typically hear be represented visually? The Wall Works in the BMA exhibition create a sense of rhythm. They are a bold visual gesture that emphasize the works that hang on them. In one instance, four paintings hang on a Wall Work, and all five pieces share the same visual material. That sense of doubling creates a striking moment. Within the space of the installation, language goes from being spray-painted to hand-written, explicit to vague, a process of transformation. Things rub up against each other, the body moves and adjusts. The viewer becomes a part of the visual rhythm.”
I asked Pendleton if he expects the deconstructed literary, social and art historical references he incorporates to prompt particular meaning making from audiences that encounter the collection.
“Inevitably, I respond to things both as an African American and as an artist, those distinctions are arguably inextricable,” he says. “Regardless, my references are broad and diverse, spanning from African Modernism to Malcolm X to the first documenta. What does that mean? It’s a strange yet productive brew. I am making the case that nothing can or should be essentialized and boiled down to one thing. It is a disservice to the art, and of course to me as an artist. We have to reorient ourselves to our social, visual, and aesthetic histories.”
Pendleton does not hand you easy answers about identity, history or the politics and privilege of language, nor should the work be expected to. The presumed simplicity and similitude of his work is substantially weighted, individualized and contextualized by the titles each bares; “Untitled (A Victim of American Democracy) derived from Malcolm X’s 1964 speech of the same name, is one of the more overt references to language engaged by black radical liberation movements.
As a viewer, I grapple with the impact and intention of dislocating essays and political slogans and resituating them into new illegible contexts. But I also maintain promising curiosity about the possibilities Pendleton’s revisionist collages present. Wall Works will not do the work for you: audiences must engage with their own assumptions, imagine meaning from the intersection of images and ideas expressed, consider the language that remains, and determine their function and role as avant-garde artworks and socio-political commentaries.
Front Room: Adam Pendleton is up at the BMA through October 1, 2017.
Author Angela N. Carroll uses illustration, citizen journalism, documentary film, words, and experimental animation as primary mediums to contribute to and critique the archive. Music and meditation are her medicine. She is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of culture. Follow her on IG @angela_n_carroll or at angelancarroll.com.
Photos by Cara Ober for BmoreArt.