We expect ruins to remain historical, hinting at disasters that occurred centuries ago. But the risk of the present becoming a ruin is perpetual. No matter how strong our architecture or how entrenched our social systems, entropy lurks. This troubling fact emerges strikingly in Edgar Arceneaux’s recent exhibition.
Arceneaux, whose work often examines memory and place, has lately turned his focus to Detroit, a site of social unrest and economic decline. The city’s degeneration was conjured most spectrally in the first room of Vielmetter’s gallery, in which Arceneaux installed The Crystal Palace (all works 2010), the title a wry nod to the 1851 London exposition of new technologies and products from the industrial revolution. Several shelving units installed around the room were crowned with arrangements of charred, dilapidated cardboard boxes that had been dipped in a sugar solution and left to grow crystals on their edges. This caused them to look at once abject and supernatural. In the center of the darkened space, a paper lantern hung from a rope almost to the ground, and as it swung back and forth when pushed by visitors, the boxes cast shadows on the walls suggestive of a lurching city skyline.
In the next room, Arceneaux presented “The Gods of Detroit,” a group of banners suspended from the ceiling on which he used clay and charcoal to paint crude figures and tuberlike forms. Each banner contains a handwritten word indicating a component of civil society, such as education, government, banks, police or libraries. However, the words are horribly misspelled (“banks” is “BKANS,” etc.), as though we’ve entered a dark age that vaguely remembers order, but can’t replicate it. Toward the back of the room was a tall plank painted with two scenes: the mysterious black monolith and enlightened ape from the opening of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and below this, a ruined city besieged by bombs. The words “Natural History” are scrawled at the top of the plank. The works in this room all pointed to the barbarism of both proto-civilized and post-civilized eras, and while the misspelled words on the banners form a haunting vision of a future medievalism (one that’s all too possible following our age of shorthand texting), the cartoony imagery on the banners and plank, and their bald analogies, feel heavy-handed.
Orpheum Returns–Fire’s Creation offered a subtler approach. In a long vitrine, a book titled Fire (with a candlelit scene by Georges de la Tour on the cover) stood on a layer of cracked red clay. The book had also been dipped into a sugar solution, and its edges were heavily encrusted with white crystals that initially looked like ice. This evocative still life continued Arceneaux’s exploration of the primary elements necessary for civilization, stretching back to the first: fire. Nearby, two large drawings each depicted a burned-out Detroit building floating in blue space.
The undertone of science fiction or apocalyptic futurism gave this body of work an enlivening dimension of fantasy. Arceneaux seamlessly entwined a troubled past and a dystopian future, evoking the fears of our present age of anxiety.
Photo: Two banners from Edgar Arceneaux’s installation “The Gods of Detroit,” 2010, clay, charcoal and enamel on canvas; at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.