PRINT January 2002

Hamza Walker on John Bankston

WHO KNEW MORE ABOUT CHILDREN, FREUD OR DISNEY? If Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence is any indication, the question is less polemical than it may seem. Clearly the oedipal complex has established itself as acceptable family fare at the multiplex. Indeed, the libidinal forces at work in children, the power of the forbidden wish, and the mechanics of repression have long been acknowledged within fine art and popular culture—which is why, I suspect, an artist like John Bankston, whose coloring-book motifs deftly and delightfully blur the hard edges of race and sexuality, is nevertheless able to paint between the lines.

Based in San Francisco, Bankston was featured in last year’s “Freestyle” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which cast him as a post-civil rights “child”—which he is in more ways than one, given his disposition for crayonlike scribbling. Cloaked in the nostalgia of childhood, Bankston’s work defers to some imaginary time when race and sexuality were free of sociopolitical angst. For all the black children (myself included) who had trouble deciding how characters in coloring books ought to be colored, Bankston’s images dispel the anxiety associated with race-based identification as it was enforced in preschool and later internalized. Yet, as his watercolor drawing Oh, That It Could Be Like This Forever, 2001, indicates, there’s a residual, wistful yearning for an alternate universe that never came to be. Comforted by his rabbit friend—a wiser and decidedly more dapper Brer, perhaps—the black male figure, well beyond childhood, has already overstayed his welcome in the land of make-believe.

While Bankston’s drawings and paintings each stand on their own, they also have recurring settings and characters, which allows for extended story lines, as in Bath Time and Into the Bubbles, both from 2001. In the former, a black man sits in a suggestively effusive mound of foaming bubbles. His head hung low, race and sexuality are burdens precluding any joy his body might otherwise know. This stage of melancholy (or is it the blues?) is beyond loss. The libido has been spent, the lost love object internalized, and the self castigated. Is Into the Bubbles an escapist fantasy, with its exuberant palette and paint handling? Or has the character from Bath Time submerged himself? An attempt to be cleansed of shame and self-hatred? A baptism from whence the “new Negro” will reemerge—for what, the fourth or fifth time? (I’ve lost count.) Or is it a suicide, a young Negro stricken with the Ophelia syndrome who, unable to be whisked away by Calgon, just couldn’t take it any more?

Open-ended, Bankston’s narratives are also unabashedly personal, and reversion to childhood is ultimately a ruse for denying loss. Bankston’s longing and nostalgia are no doubt telling of a generation weaned on the liberal fantasy of a color-blind, bias-free society where accommodation of difference has become synonymous with its repression. Hush, children! “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Black, gay, whatever! Let’s just color quietly.

HAMZA WALKER has been director of education at the Renaissance Society in Chicago since 1994. The organizer last year of “Spec: An Electro-Acoustic Investigation” and “Detourism,” a group show featuring the work of fifteen American and European artists engaged with issues of globalization, Walker is currently at work on a Michel Auder retrospective slated to open at the Renaissance Society in March. The author of catalogue essays on Thomas Hirschhorn, Raymond Pettibon, and Giovanni Anselmo, Walker has also published essays and reviews in the pages of Parkett, New Art Examiner, and Dialogue.