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SHEILA PREE BRIGHT'S SUBURBIA:
WHERE NOTHING IS EVER WANTING

text / Susan Richmond


BLACK IS THE COLOR:
LESTER JULIAN MERRIWEATHER
AND THE STICKY SIDE OF INVISIBILITY

Text / Wendy Koenig

A successful work of art is often said to enable the viewer to see or, perhaps, to see differently—if even for a moment. How, then, might an artist rip the veil of media-saturation that distorts our cultural self-perception in the United States, particularly if he is concerned with race issues? Do we still look to artists to reveal aspects of our socio-historical period that later become obvious, after the passage of generations? Are we finally beginning to acknowledge that art produced by African-Americans today is contemporary American art? Are we able to face the fact that race remains a crucial contemporary issue, and that works tackling race are not of marginal concern?

Lester Julian Merriweather, detail of Blurt Advertisement, 2005, installation, variable dimensions (courtesy of the artist and Wertz | Contemporary, Atlanta)

Memphis artist Lester Julian Merriweather answers these questions by declaring his interest in "restructuring the socio-economic standing of black people."1 His work interrogates the racial tropes disseminated by mainstream media. It reactivates potent historical images, ushering them in as the ghosts of persecution looming over the comforts of (white) American lifestyle. It also addresses the fear, tensions, and fantasies that serve to both fetishize and demean the black body. In this, Merriweather's work never surrenders to didacticism. Instead, it enlists layering and juxtaposition to confront. In some instances, implied narratives expose the longstanding anxiety surrounding intimacy between blacks and whites in America. In others, he combines icons from popular culture—Mickey Mouse's gloved hands, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland—with maligned or brutalized black male bodies, calling attention to the proscriptions that continue to define unacceptable black behavior.

In 2002, Merriweather began to experiment with black photographic tape—which is typically used to mark off areas of a negative in an enlarger—to create large-scale, temporary installations. He adheres, cuts, and layers the tape onto various architectural surfaces to create outlines and silhouettes that demarcate bodies, incorporating walls or glass windows into both the forms and the background space. The schematic, graphic quality of such imagery evokes the stenciled faces and figures so common to street graffiti. What's more, the act of taping implies impermanence: the drawing will later be "undone" rather than covered up. This positions the work in a dialogue with others concerned with the formal possibilities of erasure—such as Robert Rauschenberg's famous Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953—as well as with the social implications of invisibility, or the possibly more harmful situation of being looked past.

Lester Julian Merriweather, positioning (as opposed to passing and posing), vol. 3, 2005, installation, variable dimensions (courtesy of the artist and The Studio Museum in Harlem)

In contrast to the intensely black skin of the characters who populate Kerry James Marshall's paintings, Merriweather's figures are rendered "black" by suggestion, by a combination of physical characteristics and contexts. In positioning (as opposed to passing and posing), vol. 3, 2005, a tape on glass and wall installation created for the exhibition Frequency at The Studio Museum in Harlem, African-American women work in a cotton field, clad in loose dresses. They grasp long, trailing bags of cotton, and morph into black male players in the midst of a modern basketball game. Merriweather forces us to confront the longstanding practice of valuing black Americans, first and foremost, for their physical performance. Largely transparent, these women recall Winslow Homer's Reconstruction-era images of Southern black laborers. They also invoke the skeletal, yet undeniably black, heroes of Jean-Michel Basquiat's paintings. Nearly impossible to capture in a photograph, positioning is constituted by contingency, as random passersby, automobiles, and buildings facing the museum constantly alter and "fill in" the contoured forms.

Lester Julian Merriweather, Blurt Advertisement, 2005, installation, variable dimensions (courtesy of the artist and Wertz | Contemporary, Atlanta)

For an installation at Wertz | Contemporary in Atlanta in 2006, Merriweather fashioned a taped wall piece depicting African-American speed skater Shani Davis, gold medal winner in the one-thousand-meter race during the 2006 Winter Olympics. Although a successful Olympian and history-making medalist, Davis was not afforded the heroic status often granted to American gold medalists by the media. In fact, he was accused of "selfishness" in the press. Eric Heiden, the elder statesman of American speed skating, even went so far as to describe him as "not a team player."2 As a young skater hailing from Chicago's South Side, Davis' participation in a "white" sport made him an oddity in his community. Later, as an Olympic skater, he endured racially charged messages peppered with the n-word on his website from people hoping that he would fall and break his leg.3 In Merriweather's piece, the disembodied "hands" of none other than Mickey Mouse envelop him. After engaging with Merriweather's work, as I watched ESPN's coverage of the NFL draft, the powerful of his work came back to haunt me. His unique ability to draw attention to the racial biases and cultural stereotypes within the media had irrevocably altered my worldview. The commentators and cameras were unabashedly focused upon white Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn—and his blond girlfriend—even as he was passed over by the Miami Dolphins who chose the black wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. from Ohio State as their first-round, ninth pick. Despite his success, Ginn was only treated as a footnote to the sad story of a white quarterback and his adoring public waiting patiently as yet another black man took the spotlight.

Many of Merriweather's provocative images begin as small ink-on-vellum studies, palimpsests created by putting one drawing on top of another. The New Youth, 2003, is one such overlay drawing based upon the now-iconic photograph of black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists while standing on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Their feet are invisible, as in cropped photographs. Carlos' legs are cut mid-calf by the word "Brown," written in the script adopted by Quentin Tarantino for Jackie Brown, his homage to 1970s Blaxploitation films. Noticeably, however, the clenched fists are absent. Even as a simplified outline, this image still acts as a pictograph for the term "Black Power." On the underlying vellum, underneath the standing Olympians, a white woman in a bra or swimsuit stretches out her tongue to lick the edge of a Universal Product Code, which, in this context, calls to mind the rows of bodies in the familiar diagram of a slave ship.

Lester Julian Merriweather, detail of tape drawing installation based on photograph of civil rights activist James Meredith taken by Associated Press photographer Jack Thornell on June 6, 1966 during the March against Fear in Mississippi, variable dimensions (courtesy of the artist and Wertz | Contemporary, Atlanta)

Merriweather's technique and the socio-political implications of many of his works often invite comparison with contemporary African-American artists such as Willie Cole, Kara Walker, and Hank Willis Thomas. More importantly, other aspects point to a deep engagement with early-twentieth-century American art, the tradition of photojournalism, and the power of the visual pun. In one of his small, untitled drawings from 2003, a white woman sits on a bed, gazing intently out of the window as her black lover stands in the corner of the room. It recalls Edward Hopper's images of women in hotel rooms, ambiguous scenes of alienation and loneliness in a setting that was, at the time, "coded with fears about unrestrained sexual encounters among youngsters and extramarital affairs engaged in by adults."4 But Merriweather tweaks the image by bringing to the surface the sexual tension and cultural distance that accompany many intimate encounters between black and white Americans.

Lester Julian Merriweather, view of tape drawing installation based on photograph of civil rights activist James Meredith taken by Associated Press photographer Jack Thornell on June 6, 1966 during the March against Fear in Mississippi, variable dimensions (courtesy of the artist and Wertz | Contemporary, Atlanta)

As a consequence of Merriweather's quotational approach to pre-existing imagery, nearly every aspect of his work seems somehow familiar, even if not immediately recognizable. His acts of recontextualization allow the particular fragment to exist both as a reference to its original historical context and as an enduring motif of struggle, suffering, and exploitation. One exemplary character has appeared twice, in a small print and as a taped wall drawing. He is based on the photograph of civil rights activist James Meredith taken by Associated Press photographer Jack Thornell on June 6, 1966, shortly after Meredith sustained gunshot wounds to the head, neck, back, and legs during the March against Fear in Mississippi. The photograph shows Meredith crawling along the road, screaming in pain as he waits for an ambulance to reach him after several minutes. Having shot two rolls of film of Meredith with his pair of cameras, Thornell later expressed regret at not putting them down to help the injured man.5 In Merriweather's small, layered drawing, the wounded, screaming black man appears to creep along beneath a white couple in a suburban living room. In turn, the tape drawing takes over an entire wall, presenting a double depiction of Meredith. In this twin image, the two screaming faces are developed in much greater detail than the rest of the image. They anchor the work, like parentheses. One rests on a pillar, the other stretches over a wall. In this, Merriweather deftly points to the intersection of history, community, and architecture. This work shows that images of brutalized black males are still not unusual, that 2006 in indeed not very different from 1966.

Lester Julian Merriweather, The modern misadventures of molly the blackness craver, version one, 2006, installation, variable dimensions (courtesy of artist and Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland; photo Sebastian Madejski)

As a hip-hop generation artist who turns popular imagery against itself to challenge the seemingly self-perpetuating commodification of the black body, Merriweather is increasingly garnering international attention for works that often reveal local particularities and regional concerns. For his participation in the group show black alphabet—conTEXTS of contemporary african-american art [Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland; September 23—November 19, 2006], Merriweather created The modern misadventures of molly the blackness craver, version one, 2006, a large-scale tape drawing of a landscape based upon the ravaged body of Emmett Till, with Snow White and Alice in Wonderland gamboling next to trees bearing "black balls." In 2006, he also completed a permanent public work at Memphis' Whitehaven Public Library, commissioned by the City of Memphis' UrbanArt Commission. For this installation, he transformed his signature tape imagery into painted stainless steel wall portraits of African Americans who have made significant contributions to the Whitehaven neighborhood, where the artist has spent over twenty years of his life. In this, Merriweather's practice confirms his belief that "you can be anywhere and still do your work."7

NOTE

1. Lester Julian Merriweather cited in Romi Crawford, "Lester Julian Merriweather," Frequency, Thelma Golden and Christine Y. Kim, eds., New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2005, 61.

2. "Black Olympic Skater Makes History," Associated Press, February 18, 2006, http://cbs5.com/topstories/local_story_049195220.html, accessed April 28, 2007.

3. Ibid.

4. Vivien Green Fryd, Art and the Crisis of Marriage: Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003, 8.

5. Carolyn Kleiner Butler, "Down in Mississippi," Smithsonian Magazine, February 2005, http://www.smithsonianmagazine.com/issues/2005/february/indelible.php, accessed April 28, 2007.

6. Sharon F. Patton, African-American Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 264-265.

7. Lester Julian Merriweather in conversation with the author at the Whitehaven Public Library, Memphis, April 27, 2007.

Contributing Editor WENDY KOENIG is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

 

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