New York

View of “Sanford Biggers: Cosmic Voodoo Circus,” 2011. Foreground: Constellation 6.0, 2011. Background, from left: Cheshire (On Tilt), 2010–11; A Jóia Do Orixá (To the Jewel of the Orixa), 2011.

View of “Sanford Biggers: Cosmic Voodoo Circus,” 2011. Foreground: Constellation 6.0, 2011. Background, from left: Cheshire (On Tilt), 2010–11; A Jóia Do Orixá (To the Jewel of the Orixa), 2011.

Sanford Biggers

Brooklyn Museum/ScuptureCenter

View of “Sanford Biggers: Cosmic Voodoo Circus,” 2011. Foreground: Constellation 6.0, 2011. Background, from left: Cheshire (On Tilt), 2010–11; A Jóia Do Orixá (To the Jewel of the Orixa), 2011.

Sanford Biggers’s art fixates on recurring symbols—trees, carnival, musicians, and a bodiless smile that is part minstrel, part Cheshire cat, and part logo for a conglomerate whose name might be “history.” Two concurrent exhibitions with works spanning 2002 to the present explored these emblems vis-à-vis legacies of violence that constrain the powers and desires of black men. At times, Biggers’s ruminations sit uneasily inside a glamorized stagecraft. At best, grim knowledge makes his magic potent.

Biggers framed his Brooklyn Museum show not quite as a retrospective—it is titled “Sweet Funk: An Introspective”—and the survey unfolds like a mind map for a time-traveling shaman-clown. In Cheshire, 2007, the era is the present and the protagonists are urban everymen. The video begins with a snatch of “Strange Fruit”—Billie Holiday’s signature song, performed by singer Imani Uzuri over a blacked-out screen. Then the scene comes up: a big tree in a park. A casually dressed black man enters the frame, climbs the tree, and sits, quietly regal, looking out. Blackout. Seven times the cycle repeats: Another few bars of song, another tree, and another man climbs above it all, each in his own way as triumphant as Lewis Carroll’s cat—except unproblematically embodied. Two more videos, Bittersweet the Fruit, 2002, and Shuffle (The Carnival Within), 2009, explore related ideas of freedom as the strange fruit of historical consciousness. In the former, a tiny screen is embedded in a faux tree-branch; headphones dangle from nooses. It’s unnerving to put them on. Do so anyway, and you hear rollicking, distorted music. The camera moves through woods to come upon a naked man (Biggers himself) playing an upright piano. The vulnerable bluesman Pan is stalked, surveilled—or does he control the gaze as he does the sound? Similar issues of eerie self-display activate “Shuffle,” which stars Brazilian choreographer Ricardo Castillo. Wearing a red-white-and-blue suit and, intermittently, whiteface makeup, he haunts a Baroque church and a commuter train; like some diasporic djinn, he break-dances, rides a unicycle, finds himself bound to a tree, and then, mysteriously, walks away.

The centerpiece of “Sweet Funk” is not, however, these videos but a life-size sculpture of a baby-grand piano that has been ruined, or transfigured, by a tree growing through its guts. This hybrid, titled Blossom, 2007, plays another arrangement (Biggers’s own) of “Strange Fruit.” Above the sculpture in the museum’s neoclassical rotunda hung the disembodied smile, an aluminum-and-Plexiglas sign with disco-ball and marquee-lightbulb teeth. It too is titled Cheshire, 2008.

As a memorial for lynching victims, Blossom, with its silk leaves and dustless bark, felt too clean, too pat—especially in comparison to the video Cheshire. A similar imbalance held sway in “Cosmic Voodoo Circus,” the SculptureCenter show. Here a gigantic red goddess wearing a raffia skirt faced off against a billboard-size version of the now-familiar smile. Accompanied by shattered star-shaped mirrors and a mechanical trapeze, these works suggested a sinister carnival, but it all seemed a bit simplistic. More compelling was Shake, 2011, a video shot in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, wherein Castillo reprises his shamanic role. In the first scene, he walks out of the ocean wearing his red-white-and-blue suit, like a vaudevillian Jesus who has completed the Middle Pasage. He makes himself up in silver face-paint and goes coffin shopping; at the end, he prays beside the sea, carrying a mini version of the grinning sign. Alien and trickster, he executes somber tasks, but he’s having fun.

Perhaps Shake’s lightness despite extremity explains the whiff of Disneyfication in Blossom. Certainly something extraordinary levitates Lotus, 2007, at the Brooklyn Museum. A huge glass disc suspended in a steel frame, it suggests a gong, though to strike it would be dangerous. The glass is etched with a daisy pattern of long petals. Go close, and each white petal resolves into the infamous 1787 illustration known as “Diagram of a Slave Ship.” I report this reluctantly; it’s a spoiler. Better to be shocked by the revelation: Even this image can be made pure, like an aid to meditation—or innocuous, like a corporate logo. It’s a disconcerting combination.

Frances Richard