New York

Derrick Alexis Coard, Let My Hair Grow, 2013, graphite and pastel on paper, 18 × 24".

Derrick Alexis Coard, Let My Hair Grow, 2013, graphite and pastel on paper, 18 × 24".

Derrick Alexis Coard

Derrick Alexis Coard, Let My Hair Grow, 2013, graphite and pastel on paper, 18 × 24".

“My work is a form of testimonial where black men can be seen in a more positive and righteous light.” So says Derrick Alexis Coard, a Brooklyn artist who since 2006 has been affiliated with Healing Arts Initiative (HAI), a New York–based agency that works with artists who suffer from mental illness or developmental disability, or who are of advanced age. Coard’s use of the word righteous reveals his spiritual leanings, as does his account of discovering that “the bearded look is the image God favored when speaking through Moses.” The artist began making drawings of imaginary bearded black men in his teens, and his recent exhibition at White Columns—which has collaborated with HAI on a number of previous occasions—featured a selection of such works from the past fourteen years.

While a renewed focus on the United States’ deep-seated institutional racism in the wake of the recent, inflammatory failures to indict police officers in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner now inflects our reading of any practice that aims to show black men in a more sympathetic light, the common aura of profound self-possession of Coard’s subjects survives. In spite of their modest materials and scale, drawings such as Lazarus’s Resurrection, 2011, and The Medicine That Healed Me, 2014, have a heroic cast and monolithic heft. Indeed, it’s hard to accept the works’ depicted men as fictional, since they are rendered with such conviction. Coard may not boast an academic training, but he clearly understands the value of such formal devices as a strong tonal contrast and the “unfinished” composition. In Interpretation of Me, 2011, and I Seek His Face, 2013, for example, the subjects’ beards frame their doleful faces in fields of black and white respectively; the images are flattened as a result but also feel more iconic.

Indeed, the majority of the works that were in this exhibition are monochromatic, rendered in graphite or a combination of graphite and black marker, but some are infused with color of a joyous, Fauvist vibrancy. In the winningly titled He’s from Philly, but Represents Brooklyn, 2010, for example, Coard renders the subject’s typically luxuriant facial hair in deep-blue pastel, picking out his features in shades of orange, yellow, and green. In Vision, 2009, a cap-wearing man, depicted in profile, shoots multicolored rays from his eyes. And in Let My Hair Grow, 2013, the subject’s bushy cobalt ponytail is juxtaposed with a bright-green leaf and a scarlet burst of flame. But the works without color are no less intense; indeed, the gravity and boldness of Original Israel, 2012, and Man of God, 2013, are augmented by what feels like genuine wisdom.

White Columns’ commitment to Coard and HAI—as well as to comparable organizations such as Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center—is by now firmly established, forming an important and, crucially, ongoing part of the gallery’s programming and ethos. Having also featured Coard at such high-profile events as the Frieze New York and NADA Miami Beach art fairs, White Columns director Matthew Higgs clearly believes that these supposed outsiders (to use a notoriously problematic term) deserve a place directly adjacent to artists in ostensibly more privileged positions. Like the bold exclamation point that hovers above the subject of Coard’s drawing Excited for Wisdom, 2012, the artist’s work and the initiatives with which it is now associated are attended by a palpable buzz of positive energy.

Michael Wilson