Sonia Boyce

Vanessa Devereux Gallery

The work of Sonia Boyce, an English artist of African-Caribbean origin, is work in transition, work that is not yet mainstream—not yet inured to the prospect of a facile rehearsal of a post-Modernist orthodoxy. As such, Boyce’s work seems awkward, sometimes naive, and even repellent. But, in so directly addressing the question of what sort of work she might make, the artist has succeeded in opening up a discursive space too often left unexamined.

Boyce’s early intuition that she was not interested in producing art strictly identified as “feminist” or “black” seems to have been based on her realization that a practice drawing upon the fruits of a critical reassessment of representation would necessarily entail the abandonment of the kind of naturalism that was previously evident in her work. The assumption here was that such naturalism is far too easily associated with, and assimilated to, a practice of cultural separatism. Cultural separatism, as far as Boyce was concerned, was too easily managed by the culture at large, too easily translated into a badge of marginality. Boyce’s resolve to avoid these pitfalls is inscribed in the title of her exhibition—“Something Else.”

“England was a special jewel all right,” writes Jamaica Kincaid, “and only special people got to wear it. The people who got to wear England were English people.” The post–World War II diaspora of the African-Caribbean people of the Commonwealth transformed the Notting Hill section of London into the largest African-Caribbean community in England; that community remains the deep background, the foundation, and the main audience for Boyce’s work, even as the artist pulls herself out of the categories “black” or “feminist” art. The generalization of the work’s subject matter from an African-Caribbean community to a larger subjectivity is paradoxical, reflecting less upon the nature of such a subjectivity and more upon the fact that such generalizations remain intractably linked, in terms of the references she images, to the complex truths of assimilation and denial.

In the past, Boyce’s work has been unabashedly autobiographical, and yet not without its political pretensions. Boyce has articulated this tension, remarking that “the discussion always stops at this blanket term which says everything is identity. I see my job as being that of a communicator.” Like Adrian Piper and David Hammons, Boyce, in order to “communicate” and to avoid marginalization, must constantly privilege “the determining conditions of Modernity on representation.” It is a hard-won victory, this shift from authenticity grounded ethnically to authenticity grounded in terms of communicative purpose. This movement opens up another discursive space, as it immediately posits (albeit subconsciously) a utopian model of the reconciliation of esthetics and politics. This model functions as a benchmark for the idealized totalization of intersubjectivity against which the actual work must be judged. The immediate consequence of this sustained hallucination, with respect to the relative autonomy of the esthetic and the political, results in a practice that is highly labile, and at the root of the anxiety Boyce and other artists feel.

Yet Boyce reaches for reconciliation between the private and the public in a way that does not beg the question of Modernist representation, disrupting along the way an earlier idea about making visible what the artist could not see anywhere else—images with black people in them, outside the construction of race: unstereotypical, affirmative, and autobiographical—and going beyond what she calls the surface of the picture, into an art practice neatly summarized by Victor Burgin as “a set of operations performed in a field of signifying practices, perhaps centered on a medium but certainly not bounded by it.” Thus Boyce uses diverse media such as digital photography, laser photocopying, and pastel to nominate bits of the contemporary experience of black life—from the phenomenon of pirate radio stations to the use of African-Caribbean inspired decorative motifs. In the process, she creates works that simultaneously deny and rest heavily upon “surface” as part of their significance. Thus, Boyce’s work remains determined to transcend the sterility of a cultural moment characterized by a judicious equilibration of esthetics and politics—a state of affairs that generates a compromised, an equivocal, and, at its worst, a hyperliteralized social realism.

Michael Corris