New York

Rico Gatson, Watts Painting #1, 2011, 48 1/2 x 49".

Rico Gatson, Watts Painting #1, 2011, 48 1/2 x 49".

Rico Gatson

Ronald Feldman Gallery

Rico Gatson, Watts Painting #1, 2011, 48 1/2 x 49".

The five paintings in Rico Gatson’s series “Watts,” 2011, on view in this show, are adapted from aerial photographs of the Watts rebellion of 1965, in Los Angeles, and address the still raw and unresolved nature of the injustices that trigger urban violence, as well as the news media’s recursive tendency to produce the same kinds of oversimplified images of political unrest. In the approximately four-by-four-foot square panels, a textured crust of glitter overpainted in black indicates city blocks, while crisscrossing dark-gray lines represent the intervening roads. As in the source photos taken from the windows of helicopters, the horizon lines of the images are unstable and vertiginous. A spew of wildly colored fire and smoke—bright reds tinged with orange outlined in a penumbra of vivid purple—emanates from a scarcely visible burning building. By schematizing the original photographs and reducing their specificity, Gatson allows his works to bring to mind the widely publicized images of the more recent fires that engulfed the very same Los Angeles neighborhoods following the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Gatson’s revamp of the material estranges the familiarity of the airborne reporter’s perspective and seems to question the media’s habit of representing crime in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere from an aerial perspective, which results in news coverage detached from human scale.

In another work, Gatson evokes the jubilance that (in some quarters) that surrounded the election of the first black president of the United States in 2008, and the current disappointment (in those same quarters) with Obama’s performance thus far. Called Untitled (Obama), 2013, the piece presents the five letters of the president’s surname in a sansserif all-caps font, confronting the viewer with billboard-like immediacy. Each letter was rendered first in glitter and then painted over in black (the same methods deployed in the “Watts” works), and is flanked by black and gray horizontal lines interrupted by yellow dashes. The former give the name a horizontal thrust that, with the yellow marks, begins to recall a road—that of history itself—slipping by.

A group of painted black sculptures and rectangular wood slats with red, yellow, and green abstract stripes and zigzags that were also on display were somewhat underwhelming next to the “Watts” works; their invocation of vibrant pan-Africanism can seem decorative in comparison. Spatially, the centerpiece of the exhibition was Gatson’s six-minute video The Promise of Light, 2013, which lent the show its title. Much like Gatson’s previous videos, the work incorporates psychedelic visual effects in which sometimes uncomfortable subject matter is embedded. Consisting of brightly colored disks turning kaleidoscopically around a central axis, the video initially appears entirely abstract. Yet this sense of cheerful radiance does not last; intermittently, historical black-and-white photographs of African Americans—here an outdoor scene of cotton pickers, there a close-up of a man lynched—emerge mirage-like from the background. The seduction of the video’s trippy shapes and colors, accompanied by a trancelike sound track of ambient noise Gatson recorded on drives near his home in Brooklyn, creates a mesmerizing work whose visual and aural appeal encourages zoning out. Yet the interplay of those elements with the partially buried images beneath can’t help but snap the viewer back to difficult and unmetabolized histories of racial inequality in America.

Eva Díaz