Visual Art 9-24-2007

Tricked, Baby: Ernest Arthur Bryant III’s solo show at Franklin

Christina Schmid unravels and stitches together an understanding of Ernest Arthur Bryant's show at Franklin Art Works.


The title of Bryant’s show, Trick Baby, gives a first indication that those looking for the obvious will be hard-pressed to find it in the body of work on display: meanings refuse to stay put, and, just like the many seams and zippers in the fabric and canvas assemblages, significance seems to be on the verge of coming apart. More than mere postmodern instability and uncertainty, the work emphasizes this quality of coming apart in the way the pieces are mounted: flaps of fabric stick out, bulge into ostentatious three-dimensionality, and/or hang limply. The artist statement—rather vague and un-illuminating—invites us to re-contextualize, to speculate, and to free-associate. Yet the tricky part lies in actually pinning down the purpose of the many references, allusions, and appropriations in Bryant’s work. In the end, what all the hems, sutures, and zippers share with the process of making meaning is the steady promise of a controlled and inevitable unraveling.

Most of the pieces on display are two years old, dating from 2005, and all but two are untitled. The first object you encounter sits on a brown pedestal in the hallway that leads into the gallery. There is no way around this figure. You have to face it. Merely a foot tall, the sculpture sits at almost eye-level, an arm raised in a vaguely threatening gesture, a metal spike clasped in its hand. Yet the very size of the piece undoes the potential threat and renders it impotent and futile.

Carved in a style previous generations of art historians described as “primitive,” the figure ostensibly resembles a generically African fetish—complete with tokens of other spiritual beliefs, such as rosary beads, a small ankh, tobacco, and money—with the notable difference that this one has a computer chip in its head and a small monitor strapped to its chest. As you come closer, you realize that the small monitor functions as a kind of digital mirror that reverses and bleaches your image: you see yourself coming down the white hallway and, the closer you get to the figure’s screen, the more the contrasts onscreen wither; if you happen to be white, your digital flipped mirror-image becomes progressively whiter.

The figure marks and perhaps guards the entrance to the space Bryant’s assemblages occupy. They are pinned to the white walls, like specimens waiting to be examined. Only the corner behind the figure has been painted—brown.

Let’s re-consider: in a brown corner, a tiny figure raises an impotently threatening fist—in defense, in alarm? It offers us a digital mirror that does not exactly distort but discolor. Do we encounter the quintessential figure of America’s Other here—maligned, abused, idolized, and, finally, pedestal-ed? Relegated to a brown corner, there is still no way around this emblem of what white America historically has relied upon to define itself (not exclusively, of course, but to no small part). The piece is called “Self Medication.”

We medicate to deal with discomfort, with pain, with injury. But whose self is medicated here? Is it the figure’s self whose only power lies in playing back discoloring images, whose threat is a mere gesture, ineffectual and mute, but nonetheless necessary to deal with a past hurt? Is it the viewer’s, the artist’s? Questions abound; answers refuse to stay put. It is a quiet encounter in a brown corner within a dazzlingly white space, fraught with the weight of history.

The history of things coincides with the history of people on the gallery walls: pieces of fabric and fragments of worn clothing resonate with the absence of the bodies that shaped them; faces famous from art history and faces whose history we can only guess at provide entry points into the assemblages. Colonial history echoes through some of the pieces: the image of a Black nun, self-possessed in her habit, is paired with shiny, playfully frivolous fabric. Is this an image of lost possibilities, of renunciation, of reclamation? The fabrics, too, come with a history and in turn remind of previous uses of worn clothing: the abstract geometries of the quilts of Gee’s Bend. But what sets Bryant’s work apart from perhaps more traditional fiber arts, conventionally coded as women’s work, is his obvious lack of craftsmanship when it comes to sewing.

The pieces of fabric are hemmed together crudely by machine or hand. But rather than a shortfall, this reversal of what signifies is crucial: not the invisibility of the perfect seam and the creation of an apparently seamless whole out of separate pieces but the fragmented, sewn-together quality of the work. The sutures holding together these
discarded garments and pieces of canvas are precisely the point: they serve as a visual reminder that much has to be mended, repaired, and re-examined—and there is no point in pretending to not see the seams and zippers barely holding things in place.

In Trick Baby (2005) fabrics of variously colored skin tones bear what seems like scratch marks that begin (or end) in metal studs. The face of a Black woman comes close to being erased by a thick coat of white paint. The flatness of the white paint contrasts sharply with the detail of the drawing. There is more thick white paint in other pieces, too, never quite blanking out the face or arm of the figure but suggesting the possibility of a whitening that obliterates the presence of the face and figure, respectively.

Appropriating objects always means engaging with artifacts that already have a history of their own. This history of the objects Bryant works with is not obliterated but rewritten by his assemblage work. Visually, the ten assemblages resemble shed skins, hides, or pelts that have been pinned on walls to allow closer inspection, as if they constituted a collection of exotic specimen. Sometimes, the way they are pinned looks positively painful, as in the case of a red sweater vest whose aura of suburbanite self-assurance fades in the unfamiliar stretched-ness and distortion.

Bryant’s work plays with histories and questions whether we can indeed shed the past, like an old skin that no longer fits or pleases, and remake it from a new vantage point, a project that risks omission, fabrication, distortion, or utter reversal.

In Untitled (2007), a boy’s face, upside down, is combined with T-shirt fabrics bearing the iconic imagery of super heroes and sports brands. These juvenile tokens of masculinity are partially covered by part of a uniform jacket, studded with medals from World War II. Boyhood fantasies of quasi-omnipotence—Batman, Spiderman—meet with the insignia of military authority and merit. A zipper at the top threatens to make the assembled pieces come apart and reveals something fiery and bright. Is this a boyhood fantasy in reverse? A critique of the cruelly tight confines of military masculinity? An attempt to show us a reversed perspective, an upside down look at the loss of a boy’s childhood dream?

In the case of Bryant’s appropriations of canonical imagery by Leonardo and, I believe, Michelangelo, a different history is at stake: it is the Canon, that exclusive collection of accepted and authoritative artwork that every artist grapples with. Bryant first copied, then tagged, cut, and re-assembled these art historical icons, in what seems like a genuine attempt to see anew, past the familiar and trivialized screen that separates us from great work of past centuries, as occasional art critic Jeanette Winterson puts it. Then there is the question of why the assemblage that incorporates the Mona Lisa’s famous smile looks like it is ready to fall apart; and why does the assemblage with Michelangelo’s figure, mounted facing the Mona Lisa piece, resemble a heart?

Whether this body of work distorts, discolors, turns what’s familiar upside down, reverses, it ultimately asks us to suspend familiar modes of perception in favor of an irreverent, out-of-the-ordinary look, at least for a moment: that, I believe, is the trick, baby. There is playful resistance to the established and canonical here, in the spirit of what Gerald Vizenor terms “survivance:” not just survival but joy in the accomplishment of the seemingly impossible through the mischievery and serious playfulness of the artist as trickster.


Thanks to both Chris Atkins and Annie Follet for their insights and comments on Bryant’s work.