L.A.-based artist Edgar Arceneaux’s work often takes a hard look at history, deconstructing and interrogating its figures and texts. His work is a gentle challenge to viewers, asking that they recontextualize their ideas of history, rethinking what they thought they knew.
L.A.-based artist Edgar Arceneaux’s work often takes a hard look at history, deconstructing and interrogating its figures and texts.
His pieces — like 2017’s “Crystal Paradox,” which combines redacted FBI documents with law books and images from Martin Luther King Jr.’s march to Montgomery, Alabama — are a gentle challenge to viewers, asking that they recontextualize their ideas of history, rethinking what they thought they knew.
Arceneaux’s Triadic Drawings, for example, make unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable associations between characters by putting them on the same page. One drawing pairs “Star Trek’s” Vulcan characters Spock and Tuvok and the rapper Tupac. Another, more difficult-to-swallow drawing brings together James Earl Jones and James Earl Ray.
In the “Library of Black Lies,” currently on view at the Henry Art Gallery until June 2019, the ask is seemingly simple: Pay attention and remain suspicious. It’s right there in the title. This library contains lies.
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But Arceneaux’s installation reveals that it’s not so easy to know what’s a lie — or what’s true.
Even the installation itself looks simple on the outside: an oddly-shaped polygon made of wood slats. At some angles, it resembles a cabin, at others a large boulder, at still others the hull of an old ship.
Light peeks through gaps in the wooden slats. Once you find the entrance and go in, you’ll be immediately disoriented by a labyrinth of mirrors and bookshelves. Starting on the dark, narrow perimeter, you pass a collection of scrolls painted black. Further along, the books transition to more modern forms — hardcovers and paperbacks, some half-covered in sugar crystals.
Even if you had ignored the exhibit title and the relationship of sugar to the slave trade, little wooden sprigs of cotton placed here and there drive home that this exhibit is about race.
As you move through the labyrinth, things become simultaneously clearer and muddier. You encounter real books, fake books and books half-obscured. You have to look closely to tell what’s real, and even then, you’re not always certain. You might wander idly past a copy of “Discourse on Madness” by Rene De’cart and fail to catch the error as your brain automatically corrects it. You might see “The American Worst Science and Nature Writing” by Jerry Mangrabbon, M.D., and wonder, for a little longer than you’re proud of, if it’s a real title.
You might wander past a couple of copies of the very real book “Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film” by Ed Guerrero, and only later, when examining the photos you took, notice that one of the copies was actually “Framing Greyness: The Ashy Film on African Americans” by Eddy Guerrero.
Every step you take in Arceneaux’s “Library of Black Lies” makes you question what you’re seeing, what you think you know, and what you may not have noticed.
When you finally wind your way to the center of the labyrinth, you emerge into a bright area surrounded by reflective surfaces and it feels like the moment when you’re reading a book or learning something new and suddenly everything becomes clear. You feel your understanding expand a little bit.
But that feeling doesn’t last long. On the bookcase in front of you, you’ll see several different biographies of Mark Whitaker’s “Cosby: His Life and Times.”
Coming face-to-face with the image of man once called “America’s Dad,” who is now a convicted sex offender, is a shock that makes you question everything you thought you knew.
But this isn’t your final destination.
As the exhibition description says, “Ever suspicious of assertions of absolute truth, Arceneaux suggests that there is no empirical way to establish a single reading as the definitive one.”
So I decide to walk through the installation a few more times and see how the experience changes.
A second tour of the labyrinth draws me to the relationship of black people and literacy. Suddenly I see the sugar crystals obscuring the books as the representation, beginning with slavery (sugar, of course, being a key component of the slave trade), of the many impediments that have stood in the way of black people’s access to education.
I think of Kevin Young’s concept of “shadow books” from his book “The Grey Album,” in which he discusses the phantoms of all the books that were never written or that were lost to history, to illiteracy, to the too-many black minds murdered too young: “In some crucial ways, the lost shadow book is the book that blackness writes every day. The book that memory, time, accident, and the more active forms of oppression prevent from being read.”
A third time through reminds me of what it’s like to read a book. The closed-off wooden installation is like a closed book. The light peeking through the wooden slats is like a book’s enticing title drawing you in. Inside the installation, walking through the dark perimeter and finding my way to the bright center of the labyrinth is like how it feels to read a story for the first time, wandering through the unknown world it creates and being rewarded with interesting new insights or new knowledge. Each new lap through the labyrinth feels like rereading a book and finding something new every time.
Another loop raises questions about my role as a reporter in this space, taking notes on an installation that insists there is no objective way to “read” this piece. It prods my presence as a black woman reporter, a perspective that has often been silenced and underrecognized, if not entirely missing, from many of the supposedly “authoritative” historical accounts.
The sugar crystals become something that distorts or “sugarcoats” history, the way it’s distorted or whitewashed or marginalized.
My fifth tour is hastened by the pacing presence of the gallery attendant, making me worry I seem suspicious for spending too much time in the installation.
But that, too, becomes a part of the experience.
I am finally paying attention in the way that Arceneaux’s library seems to ask, and everything I’ve experienced since the moment I first walked in the door of the Henry Art Gallery becomes suspect: the fact that Arceneaux’s piece is in the basement. The fact that the gallery guide, relieved from his post at the reception desk, came down to the Arceneaux exhibit and waited outside while I explored. The fact that he followed only a few seconds behind me when I left and returned upstairs. The fact that the security guard and I were the only two black people I’d set eyes on since stepping into the gallery.
Coincidence? Or is my presence suspicious in this erudite space?
I could put all that information together and arrive at a meaning I know too well as a black woman living in the United States. Or it could be nothing. As Arceneaux’s library demonstrates, others processing the same information could arrive at different understandings. There is no single definitive reading.
But the question itself speaks volumes.
“Library of Black Lies” through June 2, 2019; Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street, Seattle; free (students, members, children) to $10; 206-543 2280, henryart.org