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When I first saw Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s work in her exhibition On Refusal at A.I.R. Gallery last year, I was mesmerized. What stunned me was how she used her materials to convey the idea of a fugitive, subaltern, lived experience that’s expressed in syntactic slips and eruptions of deeply felt personal exertion against the burly undertow of religious ideology. The work amazed me by how she achieved via a cascade of text, photographs, photocopied images, and video with sound, bits of photocopied text and abstract imagery affixed to the walls with pins, the portrayal of an interior, psychological process of working through a crisis concerning one’s faith and family history. The crisis simultaneously felt personal and common. I have been there myself, so the exhibition resonated with me. For her much larger show at the Arts Center on Governors Island, A Supple Perimeter, Rasheed uses essentially the same tactics, but here she’s addressing a much larger issue: Blackness.
Specifically, the wall text introducing her exhibition claims that the artist is “invested in the wide permutations of blackness,” and “explores [its] capacities.” So this is the aim. The technique Rasheed employs to carry this out, the wall text reveals, is to “delicately [move] between opacity and transparency, interiority and public pronouncements,” so that her engagement with her publics is “strategic.” Essentially, Rasheed took on a much heavier and complex topic using an approach that’s familiar to her. But the weight of blackness is planetary and its balance is always unwieldy; it sometimes zigs when it should have zagged. It draws its language and symbols from pop culture and makes their use the sign of authenticity. It is religiously orthodox in ways that are inhumane (see the rampant homophobia of Martin Luther King’s daughter and CEO of the King Center) and it often defines itself by a set of indentitarian politics that don’t hold up because you can’t accurately perceive ideology through ethnicity. Yet, those of us who respect blackness recognize that it is also one of the few true litmus tests for a national conscience (that we keep failing) and therefore is indispensable. I think that Rasheed knows all this, but in this exhibition the explication is not as compelling as the previous work. Mostly, the work gestures vaguely in the direction of meaning. The scattered texts and the images that appear are like what the poet Jorie Graham calls the “blurry blizzard of instances.” The show is overwhelming in its maximalism, but too gnomic to relate genuine insight. In this way, it reminds me of Rashid Johnson’s recent exhibition at Hauser & Wirth.
I follow along a wall next to the entrance and find a snippet of text next to a photocopied image of a black person’s hands showing the contrast between the light palms and the dark skin on the other side. The snippet reads, “recursive cascade versus iteration.” Should this guide my investigation? I can’t tell. Other provocative but enigmatic statements I find are: “Are you with us?” “This is a stout truth;” “IS A ‘? A Preamble to Black;” “audacity to define;” “a knowledge of things past; we give it a proper funeral;” and “subtract, divide and charm.” The room in which all these bits and pieces are displayed is wide and broad. Projectors beam images of people who may be significant to Rasheed, but whether they are is not clear. Most of the text reads to me as non-sequiturs and splintered sense. I find myself in a forest of black and white, machine-made abstraction that is not clarified by language, but instead made more opaque.
This kind of method might work if there were a second act somewhere. If I posit that Rasheed is the hierophant who will reveal all in due time, then I can wait for the revelation down the line. But this does not happen. I visit “If/Then” (2014-present) and “Questions” (2017), installations on the façade of the historic Fort Jay Theater nearby, and they provide more of the same: marquee signs that read “ARTISANAL ANGER,” “AGGREGATED APATHY,” “ARE WE THERE YET?” The question I pose in reply is: how would we know when we have arrived?
Kameelah Janan Rasheed: A Supple Perimeter continues at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Arts Center at Governors Island (the main exhibition at building 110, near Soissons Landing, with satellite installations elsewhere) through September 24.