Art

Building a Black Identity That’s Both Ancient and Contemporary

Stan Squirewell, "Shoshoni" (2016) Torched mixed media on wood 14 x 21 x 2 inches
Stan Squirewell, “Shoshoni” (2016), torched mixed media on wood 14 x 21 x 2 inches (all images courtesy the artist and Art in Flux)

The first time I saw Stan Squirewell’s work was around two or three years ago. I had seen work from his Tes-to-es-tro series, which I didn’t care much for; it had crosscut tubing painted gun-metal gray, or red that emerged vertically towards the viewer from assemblages hung on the wall. Because the tubing invoked both organic structures like arteries, and inorganic ones like logic board circuitry, it all hinted at the allegedly futuristic melding of organic and electronic material that is the wet dream of many sci-fi enthusiasts — the post-human hybridized being. Now, having checked in again years later at his current exhibition The Alchemist at Art in Flux, I see that Squirewell kept working on developing symbolic visual systems that intimate ancestry and, in the artist’s thinking, thereby future action. He was and still is engrossed by the visual resources found in science, religion, mythologies, and mathematics that he plums to feed into the iconography he invented to find new kinds of purchase with the idea of identity.

Stan Squirewell, "Blackfoot" (2016) Collage and acrylic on wood 20 x 12 x 2 inches
Stan Squirewell, “Blackfoot” (2016), collage and acrylic on wood, 20 x 12 x 2 inches (click to enlarge)

Identity is one of the key terms that in its ubiquity reminds us we are living in a time period that is particularly ours — it is a central focus of our social and political being, so much so it can get fatiguing to discuss. Yet in The Alchemist, Squirewell, who has built his practice around issues of identity and self-recognition, invents an iconography that seems both ancient and contemporary at the same time, individualized and yet communicating a tribal affiliation. He uses collage in a way that reminds me of other artists of color exploring identity — Wangechi Mutu and Todd Gray come to mind — but he has his own visual style which favors ancient references, and in this show, burnt and charred materials.

In the piece “Shoshoni” (2016) you see a black-and-white photograph of a black man overlaid with the pattern of what may be an indigenous, tribal geometry, but he is missing his eyes, nose, and mouth. These features are replaced by that of a brownish-yellow statue, with the thick lips and wide nose typically associated with those of African descent. The collage is embroidered with burnt paper and the charred outline of perhaps another face. The work is a legend rendered in visual form, and an argument for recognition of the artist’s particular inheritance. In the folding over of image on image, burnt almost beyond recognition, you see not so much a people emerge, but their consciousness being rescued from the conflagration that almost erased them.

Stan Squirewell, "In the Name of God" (2016) Carved and torched wood 58 x 34 x 3 inches
Stan Squirewell, “In the Name of God” (2016), carved and torched wood, 58 x 34 x 3 inches

Squirewell makes a more complicated historical narrative through iconography in “In the Name of God” (2016), which has images and coded symbols carved into a wooden cross. The images are scenes connected to America’s past: A hanging man, a portrait of a white patriarch one would find on currency, such as George Washington or Alexander Hamilton, a carved totem, a child about to be eaten by an alligator, and a face with distinctly African features at the top. Squirewell makes his own account of the nation that takes on board the violence done to people of color in the name of allegiance to godly truth.

Stan Squirewell, "Shoshoni" (2016) Torched mixed media on wood 14 x 21 x 2 inches
Stan Squirewell, “Testoestro #42 (Trans-Atlantic” (2015), mixed media on wood, 50 x 50 x 9 inches

Squirewell departs from the sociopolitically charged work with his latest pieces from the Tes-to-es-tro series, such as with “Testoestro #42 (Trans-Atlantic)” (2016), made mostly from recycled tubing and plastic materials that usually end up in a landfill. They remind me a bit of the work of Elias Sime, in that Squirewell is simultaneously making a comment on the use and reuse of materials, while also making them into visual schematics that can read as wheels on a gravel road, figures in motion, or the map of a landscape. There’s a little bit of the Italian Futurist in his work, that kinetic quality that keeps the eye moving over the composition and the imagination sparking the possibilities of machines and locomotion. In keeping this work in the exhibition, Squirewell lets us in on his process: we can see how materials lead him to think about how one’s being is tethered to issues of use and waste, how we move across distances of time and space, and what we keep with us as stories, legends, or images, and what we toss away, imagining it’s no longer useful.

Stan Squirewell, "Shoshoni" (2016) Torched mixed media on wood 14 x 21 x 2 inches
Stan Squirewell, “Council” (2016), torched pigment print collage on wood, 19 x 27 inches

Stan Squirewell’s The Alchemist continues at Art in Flux (163 Malcolm X Blvd, Harlem, Manhattan) through November 9.

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