Raymond Saunders created the arresting mural-scale collage-painting Beauty in Darkness (1993–99) in his Oakland, California, studio during the tumultuous end of apartheid in South Africa. Its acerbic commentary on segregationist policies pertains as much to that context as to America’s past and present. Indeed, Beauty in Darkness attains a heightened sense of urgency in light of this country’s ongoing discourse on racial inequity, along with some government officials’ manifold efforts to keep Black people away from the polls.
Among the highlights of a survey of the artist’s work recently on view at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York, the multipart composition on salvaged wood panels, measuring more than eight feet high and fifteen feet across, features a complex but tidy arrangement of found materials. On the left, one of several, likely pre–Civil War posters features a cartoonish image of a carnival barker above the words SHOW TIME in bright-red block letters. A sign below insists NO COLORED THRU THIS DOOR. Abutting the poster is a photo of a lynching victim hanging from a tree branch, captioned by the word STRANGE in all caps, alluding to Billie Holiday’s chilling refrain. Together, these materials point to the spectacle of racial violence that haunts America. On the right, Saunders seems to address the same histories with a less direct but no less impactful gesture: his signature flourishes of furtive chalk and white pencil lines against a velvety black background delineate ghostly figures—pairs of women, a mother and child—amid a few emphatic gestural marks, the whole surrounded by a distressed white-painted frame.
Saunders is invested in both the emotional and motivational power of language, both found and improvised, visual and textual. At lower left, a small stenciled black heart—a recurring motif in Saunders’s oeuvre—delivers an affecting punctuation mark, a sign of beauty in spite of the work’s fundamentally tragic themes.