Edgar Arceneaux, Chocolate Figures. One., 2016, handmade wooden shovel, chocolate, acrylic on muslin, and mirror on wood panel, wooden frame, 48 × 35 × 4 3/4".

Edgar Arceneaux, Chocolate Figures. One., 2016, handmade wooden shovel, chocolate, acrylic on muslin, and mirror on wood panel, wooden frame, 48 × 35 × 4 3/4".

Edgar Arceneaux

Galerie Nathalie Obadia | Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré

Edgar Arceneaux, Chocolate Figures. One., 2016, handmade wooden shovel, chocolate, acrylic on muslin, and mirror on wood panel, wooden frame, 48 × 35 × 4 3/4".

Drawing from imagery of childhood experience, Edgar Arceneaux’s exhibition “Cockeyed Eddie” may be understood in relation to the educational philosophy encapsulated by what the Germans call Bildung, which concerns the development of the individual through intellectual and moral cultivation. In part a process of reckoning with one’s own culture, Bildung also etymologically connotes picturing and shaping. Such impressions of the visual onto the self were evident in the exhibition title, which refers to the artist’s boyhood affliction with a form of diplopia, or double vision, that the press release said was hereditary in nature and could be traced back through his bloodline. We are told that Arceneaux, who identifies as black, counts among his paternal ancestors Cajun slave owners—Acadian French colonists who settled in Louisiana following their exile from Canada. This backstory set the exhibition within the familiar ambit of the American family-history school research project. Overdetermined by biology and the history of racial difference, “Eddie’s” abnormal vision serves as a conceit for the reciprocal development of subjective formation and visual form. Installed as a vaguely domestic space with draped muslin wrapped around the gallery walls, the exhibition functioned as a cognitive map of formative childhood images—often, official school photographs. The cross-contamination of cultural artifacts was evident in the painted spines of the cardboard faux-book stacks of The Genealogical Library of Acadian History (all works cited, 2016), where one encountered titles such as GOOD NIGHT NATION—a disturbing mash-up of the children’s classic Goodnight Moon and the white-supremacist film Birth of a Nation.

The artist carefully constellates his citations, but there’s a slapdash quality to these works, as though they had been hastily, perhaps provisionally, finished. At their best, this serves as evidence of the process of giving form to ideas, as it so often has in Arceneaux’s drawings. One senses that the curriculum is constantly being revised. Diplopia itself functions as a critical derivation of concepts such as Richard Wright’s “double vision” and W. E. B. Du Bois’s “double consciousness,” describing African American and black Atlantic experience as ready-made templates to be tweaked. The conceptual gambit of diplopia was expressed primarily through two devices, often in concert: superimposition of modernist and personal motifs, and visual strategies that breached the boundary of the pictorial frame. A series of twenty-one “Class Photo” drawings depicts members of the artist’s family tree alongside Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and the visor-sporting Geordi La Forge of Star Trek: The Next Generation—like Arceneaux, a black man, presumably of French descent, with vision problems. Drawn in black ink on small dry-erase boards, each likeness was overlaid with grids—recalling urban street plans—rendered in mirrored silver applied directly onto the glazing that encased each tablet. Completed with transparent colored gels cut into geometric shapes, these overlays suggest Suprematist paintings. Under spotlights, the mirrored elements transmitted their maps as shimmering reflections on the gallery floor. These and other works incorporating mirrors made explicit the dynamics of specular identification that structure Arceneaux’s works in this exhibition, implicating the viewer in the process.

Two larger painted works featuring self-portraits, Class Photo. Backdrop. Green. and Class Photo. Backdrop. Red. together evoked the duochrome test used in optometric diagnostics. However, the frame of each picture is impaled by the shaft of a wooden field tool—a rake and a shovel, respectively—used in cacao production in São Tomé and Príncipe, to which the artist’s maternal lineage can be traced. These instruments disturb the visual field, just as a fleck in the eye obstructs clear optical analysis. Suspended, they suggest nothing so much as Marcel Duchamp’s early readymade In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1915. Duchamp’s shadow seemed to lurk throughout the exhibition. In Arceneaux’s Chocolate Figures. One. and Two., the mechanical figure Duchamp gave sexual connotations to in his Chocolate Grinder paintings is displaced in favor of additional cacao-dusted shovels as metonyms of human labor, shadowed in the exhibition by the history of slavery. While the modernist canon’s precision optics remain in need of correction, recourse to the optical unconscious isn’t enough; Arceneaux’s cockeyed approach to genealogy doesn’t purport to achieve clear resolution, but rather renders the chaotic process of picturing a world framed and informed by one’s antecedents.

Phil Taylor