PRINT February 2006


All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.—Galileo Galilei

I’m playing dark history. It’s beyond black. I’m dealing with the dark things of the cosmos. The dark things are the unknown things. —Sun Ra

Illogical judgments lead to new experience.—Sol LeWitt

IT’S A FEW DAYS BEFORE the opening of “Borrowed Sun,” Edgar Arceneaux’s recent exhibition at The Kitchen in New York, and the artist is standing over a table in the gallery, making a large drawing of what looks to be a hat hanging aloft in space. When I ask him about it, he glances up from his work and begins telling me a story about Mitchell Feigenbaum, the theoretical physicist and legendary figure in the field of chaos theory: One day in the late 1960s, Feigenbaum, then a grad student at MIT, went out for a walk in a Boston park, where he passed some picnickers sitting together on the grass. Occasionally pausing to look back at them as he walked farther and farther away, noting their conversation and behavior as he went, Feigenbaum eventually reached a point at which he found that the group, though still visible, had grown so small and distant that it was no longer comprehensible. The picnickers’ voices had become indistinct, their gestures seemingly haphazard movements rather than the logical punctuations of speech. Instead of simply continuing his stroll and forgetting the experience, Arceneaux tells me, Feigenbaum became fascinated by it and by the sorts of questions it raised about the nature of knowledge, perception, and the relationship of context to meaning.

A more detailed account of the picnic story appears in James Gleick’s classic book, Chaos: Making a New Science (1987), and it provides a telling sense of the incident’s significance, both for Feigenbaum’s outlook and, indeed, for Arceneaux’s. As Gleick describes it, the physicist’s experience started him

wondering what he could say about the brain’s machinery of perception. You see some human transactions and you make deductions about them. Given the vast amount of information available to your senses, how does your decoding apparatus sort it out? Clearly—or almost clearly—the brain does not own any direct copies of stuff in the world. There is no library of forms and ideas against which to compare the images of perception. Information is stored in a plastic way, allowing fantastic juxtapositions and leaps of imagination. Some chaos exists out there, and the brain seems to have more flexibility than classical physics in finding the order in it.

Knowledge and perception, context and meaning; fantastic juxtapositions, leaps of imagination; esoteric scientific thought and the poetry of the everyday: all touchstones of Arceneaux’s own rich, idiosyncratic artistic practice, just as they have been of Feigenbaum’s scientific one. And the floating fedora? It turns out to belong to the great Sun Ra, one of the trinity of larger-than-life personalities—along with Sol LeWitt and Galileo Galilei—around whom the sprawling “Borrowed Sun” is built. A few days later, the rendering I watched Arceneaux create will be copied in white paint onto a glass disk, as will other drawings depicting similar images ranging in size from the big one he was working on when we met to one so tiny it can barely be seen. Lined up along the sides of The Kitchen’s back gallery, where strong light puts Arceneaux’s subtle inscriptions in a zone of indeterminacy as it casts their contours in shadow on the walls behind them, the vaguely planetary disks—like some kind of disassembled orrery by way of Edwin A. Abbott—are meant to suggest a progressively recessional view of the brilliant and eccentric jazzman’s lid being carried away on a gust of wind. Nearby, a splash of broken glass litters the back corner; a recapitulation, Arceneaux tells me, of an accident that occurred during a previous installation of “Borrowed Sun,” evoking the mix of serendipity and strategy that characterizes both the music of the piece’s subject and the conceptual rhythms of its maker. As an integral work on its own and as an element of a larger complex of gestures, Sun Ra’s Hat, 2004, is quintessential Arceneaux: an oblique and erudite meditation on chance, agency, and the machinery of perception that finds its first expression in drawn forms before opening on to numerous other modes of interconnected material and display; an unconventional inquiry into the unknown that probes the apparently illogical in its insistent pursuit of discovery.

ARCENEAUX IS AN AFFABLE, intensely focused Angeleno in his early thirties who had his first New York solo show two years before receiving his MFA from CalArts in 2001. From the very beginning, it was clear he could draw like a dream and that his technical skill was at the service of a vibrant, restless intellect. The first work of Arceneaux’s I ever encountered remains vivid in my memory, though I only saw it in reproduction. Spock, Tuvac, Tupac, 1997, a slyly funny drawing made not long after Arceneaux graduated from Art Center College of Design, is like a page from some Dadaist illustrated encyclopedia of pop culture—three brothers from another mother joined by linguistic adjacency and the artist’s deadpan, pitch-perfect rendering, into an uncanny triumvirate that somehow manages to propose a relationship between two generations of Star Trek Vulcans and one of hip-hop’s most introspective troubadours. This sort of cultural mining—engineered through wildly improbable recombinant procedures, often mixing elements evoking his own African-American heritage with modes of address from contemporary art, science, classical philosophy, and literature—is always at its heart designed to buck conventional wisdom about what does or does not belong together in a given space of discourse, and is offered as an invitation for viewers to join Arceneaux in his attempts to identify deeper patterns of order beneath what superficially appears as disarray.

Over the next few years, Arceneaux expanded the incorporative strategies of such individual works into larger multimedia installation environments, often reiterating them, with new or altered elements, in more than one setting—as with “Borrowed Sun,” which debuted in 2004 at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and was also mounted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before its recent New York incarnation. For “The Trivium,” first shown at Pomona College in 2001 and then the following year at Galerie Kamm in Berlin, Arceneaux used his trademark pencil drawings on vellum, along with found images, to spirit Dante Alighieri, Socrates, rapper Pharoahe Monch, and jazz giants Pharoah Sanders and Thelonious Monk into a dizzying exploration of linguistics and improvisation that took its title from a medieval term denoting the three pillars of a classical education (grammar, logic, and rhetoric). In “Rootlessness—Sugar Hill, A Heuristic Model” (2002), Arceneaux’s tableau included sculpture as well as drawings and evoked the practice of slavery in the US via iconic characters from the miniseries Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley. And in the ongoing Drawings of Removal, begun in 1999 and so far enacted at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2002 and of UCLA’s Hammer Museum in 2003–2004, the artist turns the gallery into a simulacrum of his own studio, working regularly in the space as viewers look on.

The images Arceneaux produces during these extended, performative “artist residencies” are renderings of different sites in his father’s hometown, Beaumont, Texas, which the artist visited in 1998. Working from his own memory and his father’s descriptions of what the town once looked like, Arceneaux sketches and doodles on oversize sheets of paper tacked or taped up in multiple layers, often erasing and redrawing, or excising a section of one work and pasting it onto bare wall. Always in flux, these drawings—of his father’s childhood home, an oil refinery, scrubby undergrowth—physicalize the shifting, piecemeal quality of memory. They rig a productively unstable matrix of resonant traces that echoes the chaotic constitution of recollection. Arceneaux’s deconstructive operations on narrative modes typically associated with both representational imagery and memoir, coupled with his decision to lay bare and make public activities related to both reminiscence and production typically unavailable to viewers, establish a field for activity where the past and the present coexist in a kind of conceptual and functional simultaneity. The mechanisms of exchange—between Arceneaux and his father, between the artist and his materials, between the audience and the artifact—on which the work is built are left open and active, constantly (like the work itself) in the process of becoming.

“Borrowed Sun” deploys the full range of Arceneaux’s multidisciplinary practice—sculpture, film, photography, and, as always, drawing—in the service of one of his richest and most far-reaching conceptual arrays to date. Linking the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra, elements of chaos theory, Galileo’s solar observations, and LeWitt’s iterative wall-based graphic frameworks, the exhibition is a kind of room-size philosophical machine in which the physical and the metaphysical are repeatedly woven together and teased apart to produce new and unexpected connections. The gallery space becomes an active field: A film of the artist re-creating a LeWitt drawing on a freestanding brick wall is projected on to the same wall, which has been taken apart and randomly reassembled like a giant unfinished slider puzzle; the cracks between the bricks allow the light to peek through, casting patterns of illumination on an enormous drawing that adduces changes in the apparent scale, position, and shape of sunspots (in the manner of Galileo’s own observations) to evoke the passage of time on both historical and cosmological scales. A nearby slide sequence depicts the artist at various locations along the Pacific coast blocking out the sun with his thumb, a gesture that mimics what he tells me is an old stargazer’s trick used to determine the atmospheric clarity in a given location, yet also recalls the seriality (and calculated absurdity) of Conceptual photography. And around the corner hangs one of the most striking drawings Arceneaux has produced, Counting from 1 to 99,999, Blind Contour Drawing, 2004, a large rendering of the artist’s hand (looking like a cross between something out of Gray’s Anatomy and an image of a cloud of galactic vapor beamed back from the Hubble) labeled in the manner of an ancient Chinese system for numeration in which various joints represent different sums.

Like many of Arceneaux’s previous shows, “Borrowed Sun” insinuates highly specific cultural and scientific references into a system that is almost defiantly open, encouraging the curious viewer to negotiate shifting boundaries between disorder and order, to inhabit a sensory territory where the energy produced by an apparent chaos of meanings in fact has the potential to provoke paradigmatic shifts in modes of apprehending experience and, by extension, in experience itself. If the delicate balancing acts between premeditation and improvisation—between control and openness—so central to the aesthetic outlook of both Sun Ra and LeWitt can be read as a conceptual framework through which to view Arceneaux’s entire program, the artist’s choice of the legendary scientist as the third figure in his trio is similarly telling. At once a skilled empiricist and an imaginative theorist, Galileo used his observations of superficially unremarkable phenomena to produce startlingly unconventional hypotheses about the big questions confronting both science and philosophy—indeed, his work on sunspots, and the conclusions about heliocentrism to which it led him, was heterodoxical enough to get him tried for sacrilege. Arcenaux’s practice, in its discomfort with convention and its constitutional disinclination to accept established boundaries between ideas, forms, and disciplines, is, finally, a keenly maverick one as well. If the church of contemporary culture can sometimes seem constrained by incurious devotion to established orthodoxies, Arceneaux’s work suggests that the congregation still has its share of conceptual heretics, ready and able to incite new revolutions of meaning.

Jeffrey Kastner is a frequent contributor to Artforum.