For almost two decades, Rico Gatson has been making strong work that stands at the intersection of formalist abstraction and social commentary. This solo exhibition was a stand-alone project at Studio 10 in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. (He is normally affiliated with Ronald Feldman Fine Art in Manhattan.) Gatson took on some of the thornier issues of racial identity with which he continuously wrestles, using the gallery almost like a lab for working them out. Must oppression be a crucible for identity? Does where you stand on a difficult issue necessarily define who you are? Gatson hands out no easy answers (who could?), but, in seeking them, he’s willing to put himself and his own position as a black artist on the line.
On view was a group of works (most from 2014) in diverse mediums: painting, sculpture, a photo collage and a looping video projected onto a handmade wooden screen. In concert, they formed a unified mise-en-scène with a DIY vibe. The centerpiece was When She Speaks, a 5½-minute video featuring archival black-and-white footage of Kathleen Cleaver—who, with her husband Eldridge, was a member of the Black Panthers—delivering a speech at the funeral of 18-year-old Bobby Hutton, killed by police during the raid of a house in West Oakland, Calif., in which two officers were wounded. Tensions were high, and her words, which reinterpreted Ecclesiastes (“a time to be born, a time to die; a time to love, a time to hate; a time to fight, and a time to retreat. In the name of brotherhood and survival, remember Bobby”), feel more like a call to arms than an offer of comfort.
As we watch, her image becomes kaleidoscopically fragmented and moves around the screen. Superimposed, and languidly merging in and out of Rorschach-like doublings, are geometric shapes in orange, red, green and yellow, a palette associated with African nationalism that Gatson often uses. The only other sound besides Cleaver’s voice is a brief, sharp, even tapping. Overall, the effect is a mix of the hypnotic and the unsettling. Cleaver is telling us something that is ideologically emphatic, but in this fragmented context, her ideas don’t quite line up.
Elsewhere, Gatson used visual rhythms and abstract motifs more seamlessly, knitting together unresolved racial issues with an uncannily calm formal logic. On one wall was a painting featuring a photomontaged black-and-white image of a female mask of the Dan tribe (perhaps an ancestral, pre-Diaspora analogue for Cleaver). Superimposed over the masks, arranged in two horizontal rows, are sharply colored vertical stripes—a visual pun on prison bars?—that felt like a visual echo of the video’s tapping sound. Behind the video, a narrow totemic painting, this one solely an abstract pattern of colored and black stripes, leaned lazily against the wall. When Gatson renders black lines, he often adds a texture to them (created from glued and over-painted glitter) that resembles close-cropped “nappy” hair. Afro hair, set in rows—as if to say, when a culture is made to fall in line, it is the more easily subdued.
Gatson titled the show with a dependent clause—”When She Speaks”—seeming to underscore that when it comes to race, we are, as a country, only in medias res. A hundred and fifty years after the Civil War and half a century after the Civil Rights movement, our identity issues are just as hard to “speak,” but, as Gatson argues, an honest tension is better than complacency.