AUSTIN, TX — With each image in Adrian Armstrong’s exhibition, with new eyes…viewers are challenged to embrace the abundance that exists beyond binaries. In this way, the show recalls the ethos of Marlon Riggs’ 1994 documentary, Black is…Black ain’t, which, in its efforts to explore the breadth, complexities, and contradictions inherent in defining Blackness, guides viewers towards the conclusion that Blackness is inscrutable. 

Toward a similar mission, the subjects of Armstrong’s ten joyful portraits are depicted through a blend of techniques and textures. Rendered in pen, acrylic painting, and sometimes collage, the portraits frequently leave viewers with the sense that the image is flat or intentionally incomplete. Armstrong offers these nonfinito portrayals as an invitation to the viewer to collaborate: how might they finish this work?

Adrian Armstrong, “Untitled,” pen, acrylic, collage

Up close, these images utilize Armstrong’s signature technique of circular ballpoint pen strokes over acrylic underpainting. In this way, his works create a tension and dialogue between classical approaches to portraiture and contemporary drafting methods, evoking the emotive lines of the artist Charles White.

Yet another source of tension are the shades Armstrong utilizes; moving from the show’s entrance, viewers will notice that the use of brown — the hue we might expect to figure most prominently into an exhibition of Black portraits — is withheld in all but three of the images (strategically placed toward the end of the show). Rather, with new eyes…is largely composed of pastel portraits — provoking us to consider all that Blackness is when our understanding of race is not tethered to skin shades. This feeling of tension is sustained throughout the exhibition: the works are complex but feel unfinished; masculine subjects don ball gowns, tiaras and floral prints.

At the end of a year characterized by Black loss and images of Black people being brutalized by the state, with new eyes… focuses, instead, on Black joy and hopefulness. This exhibition is an opportunity to take in Armstrong’s archetypal style in a way that feels like a celebration, like the first summer barbecue after a long, cold winter. 

Adrian Armstrong, “Untitled,” pen, acrylic, collage

with new eyes… continues through July 10 by appointment  at the Art Galleries at Black Studies, University of Texas ( IdeaLab, Gordon White Building, 210 West 24th Street, Austin, Texas). The exhibition was curated by Phillip Townsend.

Lauren Lluveras is a PhD student in the University of Texas's African & African Diaspora Studies program where she studies the Caribbean, contemptible collectibles, and Black temporalities.