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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Given that it’s stranded behind a decaying Pizza Hut and dwarfed by a massive construction site (ubiquitous in Charleston’s booming real estate market), you could easily miss The Southern’s simple white façade. But if you’re enterprising enough to venture beyond the tourist-friendly galleries of King Street and its mile of postcard paintings of Charleston’s historic district, The Southern emerges from its surroundings an unlikely oasis.
Indeed, their current exhibit, Fatal Links, by Tennessee native Juan Logan, feels like a much-needed antidote to our current moment of political chaos and fake news. It uses basic elements of composition, color, and shape to bring the viewer something that feels irrefutable and substantive.
During a recent talk at the College of Charleston, “A Deeper Black: Race in America,” Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to a large audience about the inseparability of Black labor from what it means to be an American. He explained, “Slavery in America was not a bump in the road; it was the road itself … the thing you can’t imagine America without.” In Fatal Links, Logan effectively makes this argument on canvas. Central to his thesis is understanding Black identity as both a cipher that contains the secret of America’s greatness and a constant reminder of its deepest shame.
In “7” (2017), a large glitter-and-fabric installation on wood, Logan boldly introduces his exhibit’s central figure: a featureless Black head. This totem, like a sphinx posing a riddle, forces viewers to confront what they see reflected in its inscrutable Black depths. Throughout Fatal Links, Logan uses the spatial and tonal variety of this Black head to create a visual and economic language for conveying his social critique of America’s race psychology, demonstrating the essentiality of the Other to defining all other features of the American tableau.
In “The Imaginary Other” (2007), the Black head is prominent, standing out against a backdrop of colonial wallpaper prints. There are other heads present as well, rendered in pastel pinks, oranges, and greens, but they almost blend into the wallpaper. The presence of the Black head actually distinguishes them: Without its sharp contrast, the other shapes would fade into nonexistence. In this sense, the imaginary Other is not an Other at all, but central to the composition’s balance.
In “The Help” (2008), pastel and white heads are far more prominent. They are the faces of comfort and domesticity denoted by a cheerful backdrop of patterns you could imagine lining the walls of a country house. Meanwhile, the Black heads here are small and relegated to the back, evocative of the countless unsung Black faces, maids, and mammies who were once relegated to the kitchens of America, without whom this well cultivated sphere of domesticity would have been insupportable
The titles of Logan’s works also help to convey his sharp irony. In “The Margins” (2007), the Black heads are again dominant and paired with deep reds, like blood, creating a paranoia of pigments that, contrary to the title, are not marginal at all — they seem, in fact, to be moving in on the viewer, at the center of everything.
In a more narrative stroke, with “Elegy I,” “Elegy II,” and “Elegy III” (all 2017), Logan depicts the symbolic black totem on the move. The three pieces are hung side by side, but not in numeric order. In “Elegy I,” two heads are composed of puzzle pieces of various shades and another is embellished with rows of small white roses. It is the first time in the exhibit where the monolithic image of the Black head is disrupted. If there is a chronology of events at play, “Elegy I” suggests a time before slavery when the Black head — and, by extension, Black people — were understood as individuals rather than simply the featureless subjects of White hegemonic rule. An open blue sky and floating white clouds further suggest that this was a time of freedom. In “Elegy III,” situated between I and II like a middle passage, the viewer can make out the prow of a ship with black heads traveling across a blue sea. Finally, in “Elegy II,” the heads are set against red and white stripes evocative of the American flag. Now incarcerated within an intricate pattern of cell-like squares, the faceless mass seem to have reached the land of the “free.”
In addition to the innovation of his own distinct visual language, what makes Logan’s work especially radical is the deceptively simple way he illustrates the necessity of the Other to defining what it is to be an American — and for that matter what it means to be white. After all, one without the Other is but a blank canvas.
Fatal Links continues at The Southern (2 Carlson Court, Downtown Charleston) through April 16.