New York

View of “Edgar Arceneaux,” 2012. Foreground: I Told Jesus, Change My Name, 2012. Background: Blind Pig City, Libraries, 2011–12. From the series “Blind Pig City,” 2009–.

View of “Edgar Arceneaux,” 2012. Foreground: I Told Jesus, Change My Name, 2012. Background: Blind Pig City, Libraries, 2011–12. From the series “Blind Pig City,” 2009–.

Edgar Arceneaux

Maccarone | 630 Greenwich Street

View of “Edgar Arceneaux,” 2012. Foreground: I Told Jesus, Change My Name, 2012. Background: Blind Pig City, Libraries, 2011–12. From the series “Blind Pig City,” 2009–.

“I told Jesus, it would be all right, if he changed my name . . .” The soul singer’s voice trembles through the opening notes before swooping confidently down into the lower registers, as she tests out her conviction in varying intonation. Over the verses that follow, Jesus warns his “child” of the grave consequences of a new name: The world will surely turn away from her; even her family won’t know her. The seeker remains resolute, her voice formidable as it reaches the refrain: “It would be all right. . . .”

The old spiritual lies at the heart of Edgar Arceneaux’s twenty-three-minute film I Told Jesus, Change My Name, 2012, the focal point of his recent exhibition “Building Loving and Distrustful Relationships.” Shot on 16 mm and transferred to video, the work’s two channels were split onto either side of a freestanding wall that bisected the otherwise open room along a diagonal axis. On one side, the gallery space remained dark but for a single spotlight, trained on a publicity shot of the artist’s mother, Merc Arceneaux Sr. Hand-tinted and hung in a cheap, worn frame, the photo is dated 1958, back before the then-young singer gave up her career to raise a family. It shows the would-be starlet draped in a pink shawl, hoop earrings offsetting the coquettish tilt of her shoulders. Her eyes glitter out toward an imagined audience, which, in this exhibition, was a role filled by her own future self, as projected in the film directly across from the portrait. Shot more than fifty years after the photograph was taken, the footage shows the artist daring his mother to revisit past decisions by asking her to repeatedly perform a song about new beginnings in front of a camera crew in his studio. The studio is the son’s domain, and he lets us and his mother know it, critiquing her delivery midnote, interrupting her with staging directions, or cutting off sound at seemingly random intervals. Despite this interference, Arceneaux Sr. holds her own, exerting a palpable mastery over the camera, which stays mostly behind her, focusing on the thick, asymmetrical knot of hair swept across the back of her head. When the camera does allow a glimpse of her face, it is impossible to tell whether the tears in her dark eyes are from exhaustion, emotion, or merely a professional empathy with the lyrics.

The second channel uses still images to explore the studio as the setting of Arceneaux Sr.’s performance. The projection faced the other side of the gallery, where works that appeared in-process in the film were presented in their finished state. The three series of drawings each investigate the potentially “distrustful” relationships forged between image, text, and cultural subtext, with the artist finding the same bittersweet poignancy in the breakdown of semiotic bonds that he does in the rupture—and reconstitution—of the familial. This rift powers the sprawling “Blind Pig City” drawings, 2009–, whose title refers to the unlicensed after-hours clubs, or “blind pigs,” that have taken over the abandoned buildings of Detroit. Burned shells of clapboard houses, banks, and libraries are pictured on craggy chunks of earth, which have broken free from the ground and are now whirling through thick, black clouds, as if in search of another Oz.

The optimism underlying this search is ultimately what allows “distrustful” relationships to still be “loving.” Mediating the space between the publicity shot and the drawings with the film, Arceneaux reconciles a nostalgic memento of hope with the trauma of the present, a disjuncture so deep, even the changing of a name cannot mask it. But just as the mother’s dream gives way to the son’s, this new name manages to carry a fresh hope into its uncertain future.

Kate Sutton