Critics’ Picks

Terry Adkins, Shenandoah, 1998, concrete, steel, rope, and silicone, 18 1/2 x 22 x 30".

New York

Terry Adkins

Lévy Gorvy | New York
909 Madison Avenue
January 10–February 17, 2018

The words “alternate history” evoke hypothetical extremes, such as unfought wars and imagined technologies infused with the possibility of global havoc. But the phrase might also describe subtler narratives forgotten, effaced, or thwarted by the vicious authors of history. Consider Terry Adkins a chronicler of alternate pasts. The late artist’s performances and sculptures, steeped in the power of music and the music of power, send echoes into the chasms of black history—and so, at first, it feels mildly disappointing that for its debut exhibition of Adkins’s work, this gallery has, in lieu of staging one of his cacophonous “recitals,” enlisted Charles Gaines to curate a fairly quiet survey, mostly devoted to the formal rather than aural qualities of his objects. This feeling quickly fades.

Upstairs, in Darkwater Record, 2003–2008, a porcelain bust of Mao sits atop a plinth of five cassette recorders playing W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1960 speech “Socialism and the American Negro.” The needles bounce to imply Du Bois’s cadences, but without speakers, nothing can be heard. Nearby is Reply, 1987, a hunk of verdigrised copper that juts from the wall like a machete sunk into a tree, its shape resembling that of a musical rest. In Prophet, 2010, nautilus shells and a silk parachute cocoon a memory jug, a type of vessel and grave marker made for loved ones in the afterworld taken up by Southern black communities in the 1950s. In the middle of the downstairs room glints Native Son (Circus), 2006–15, a puddle of cymbals programmed to intermittently erupt in protests of jazzy, dissonant patter. Then there’s Shenandoah, 1998, a humble arrangement of steel, concrete, and coiled, noose-like shipping rope whose title recalls the American chantey and, more darkly, obscurer aspects of the Confederacy. The work’s flotsam-like materials allude to both Arte Povera and far older traditions to suggest that, like music and sculpture, heritage too can be improvised.