Edgar Arceneaux, Miracles and Jokes (detail), 2011, acrylic on paper. Installation view.

Edgar Arceneaux, Miracles and Jokes (detail), 2011, acrylic on paper. Installation view.

Edgar Arceneaux

Edgar Arceneaux, Miracles and Jokes (detail), 2011, acrylic on paper. Installation view.

Edgar Arceneaux is an artist intensely concerned with the relationship between individual experience and collective memory, an interest he manifests through cross-media installations designed to promote forms of personal and social understanding. At once conceptual and associative, his works dissect ways of knowing the world: myth, history, science, and storytelling. At the same time, these pieces refuse to be pinned down, suggesting that knowledge is personal and contingent and that collective commitment often requires individual leaps of faith. This exhibition, which consisted of two installations and a room of sixteen spray-painted drawings, marked Arceneaux’s first solo show in Detroit. However, the notion of Detroit is not new to his work. In 2009, and again in 2010 at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, the LA-based artist adopted Motor City as one of his main themes. Though at MOCAD, references to any specific place were oblique, Arceneaux’s installations for this show nonetheless resonated with its Midwestern context, demonstrating a postindustrial sensibility that today holds optimism and pessimism in equal balance.

Staged as a journey from darkness into light, the exhibition partitioned MOCAD’s cavernous main gallery, first presenting the visitor with Circle Disk Rotation–Detroit Series, 2010, a dark, disorienting room tempered by a dim light trained on the back wall, in which three plastic fans blew a vertically suspended seventy-inch cardboard circle so that it silently revolved. Periodically, a projector beamed a video onto the disk—a sequence that evoked the point of view of a spaceship circling a planet and then heading into the sun. Assuming the logic of a Dan Graham time-delay piece, Arceneaux’s video recycles the previous day’s projection onto the revolving disk, superimposing a virtual cardboard construction onto the real one. To move between the simple, everyday forms that Arceneaux used to dress his cosmic stage set was to be struck by the surprising ease with which the artist manipulates mundane materials and technologies to produce a sense of epochal events, cyclical time, and the terror of the sublime.

The second installation, 22 Lost Signs of the Zodiac: Three Variations of Seven, 2009, was spotlit from above and resembled post-Minimalist sculpture: a draped wooden table flanked by six steel racks of eleven drawings, arranged by color. It was a pointedly interactive work: Viewers were invited to unroll its large-scale drawings on the central table, revealing celestial scenes—images made of dirt, graphite, gesso, and enamel—that seemed at once astronomical and microscopic. By encouraging his audiences to both discover and incrementally destroy this series, Arceneaux made a particularly resonant gesture, one that unites drawing with sculpture, creation with destruction, and artist with audience.

Commissioned by MOCAD, the third work, Miracles and Jokes, 2011, was set in a well-lit room and comprised sixteen sprayed acrylic drawings bearing multistable optical illusions (think Wittgenstein’s “duck-rabbit”) that framed the ways in which absurdity and the unknown are fundamental to both religion and humor. For instance, a posterlike work dealing with the Tower of Babel evoked Arceneaux and Rick Lowe’s Watts House Project , 1996/2007–, as well as a potential spiritual ancestor in the eccentrically refurbished homes of Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, 1986–, on Detroit’s east side. There were also multiple versions of a very similar graphic depicting two opposing male profiles featuring references to “spiritual fathers,” namely, Richard Pryor, Jesus Christ, and (metal band) Judas Priest. In a third example, a bust of a male who appeared simultaneously young and old was juxtaposed with a humorous misrecognition story wherein the Lord becomes Geppetto. Bearing combinations of images and texts that can be read in multiple ways, these drawings suggest that the past repeats in manifold, evolving forms. In Arceneaux’s world, our previous modes of understanding— whether true or false—are inescapable. Yet, he might add, to be affected by them does not doom us to repeat what has come before.

Matthew Biro