Sanford Biggers, BAM (For Michael), 2016, bronze with black patina, plinth, 61 × 10 1/2 × 10 1/2". From the series “BAM,” 2015–.

Sanford Biggers, BAM (For Michael), 2016, bronze with black patina, plinth, 61 × 10 1/2 × 10 1/2". From the series “BAM,” 2015–.

Sanford Biggers


Sanford Biggers, BAM (For Michael), 2016, bronze with black patina, plinth, 61 × 10 1/2 × 10 1/2". From the series “BAM,” 2015–.

Sanford Biggers’s video BAM (For Michael), 2015, ostensibly documents a series of mediations to a new series of bronze figurines based on colorful wooden statuettes that the artist originally purchased from street vendors in Harlem. The figures were dipped in wax, shot repeatedly with a rifle and a shotgun, and then cast in bronze and given a black patina. The video captures the bullets hitting a male figurine, sending shards of wood flying into the air. Shot in the leg, the figure inevitably falls over. Each crack of the gun elicits a cut—shot for shot, as it were—and a shift in perspective: from close-ups of arms, legs, or head, to pulled-back views of the full body. Sometimes the sounds are edited so as to interrupt one another, literally rapid-fire; at other points, the audio is slowed down, with the video correspondingly decelerating to capture the bullets’ destructive effects. The figurines’ rigidity in the face of what is happening to them—a figuration without animation, and thus drained of humanity—provides an unsettling edge to the video.

For “The Pasts They Brought with Them,” Biggers’s first solo exhibition in Chicago, the artist juxtaposed two bodies of work, both from the series “BAM,” 2015–. The bronze figurines BAM (For Michael) (the object from the aforementioned video) and BAM (For Sandra), both 2016, shared gallery space with the artist’s more familiar quilt works, in which found textiles are cut and stitched into new amalgams and adorned with acrylic, spray paint, tar, glitter, and other materials. Biggers has previously connected these works with the mythic role of quilts in the history of the Underground Railroad. While their use has never been verified, according to many accounts quilts were hung from safe houses as surreptitious coded signals for runaway slaves on their journey north, their colors and folds communicating to the traveler whether he could stop for the night. Certainly Hat & Beard, 2016, which features a collaged image of the artist’s own “slave ship lotus” design, is in direct conversation with the legacy of slavery and its correlation to the African American quilt-making tradition. A quite different set of associations is apparent, however, in DAGU, 2016, a quilt cut into a distinctive polygon that echoes Frank Stella’s De la nada vida a la nada muerte (From Life Nothing to Death Nothing), 1965—a seminal work that demonstrated what Michael Fried called “deductive structure,” in which the frame of the painting determines the pattern that constitutes the entire composition. Elsewhere, spiderlike forms that recall Louise Bourgeois’s signature animal were arrayed in silver paint over the multifarious quilt patterns. This quite deliberate instantiation of a “dialogue” with artistic precedents was contagious, producing inevitable comparisons between the “BAM” sculptures and those of Modern Primitivism more generally—the efforts of Picasso and so many others to extract new formal breakthroughs from religious objects, the majority of which hailed from African cultures.

How can we reconcile Biggers’s invocation of a profoundly urgent political topic—the increasingly visible killings of unarmed African Americans by police in the US—and his conversations with the canon of twentieth-century art? In the case of quilt works such as DAGU, one might be tempted to cast Frank Stella as a “white male artist” whom Biggers is “subverting,” were this not a rather simplistic dichotomy that ultimately does little to challenge the troubling current state of affairs, in which black males are often subjected to police brutality. Instead, shades of gray might be located in Biggers’s de- and re-constructions; his retrofitting of previous art-historical forms with spare parts; and his imbuing of material plenitude—and its distinctly visceral pleasure—with grim political subtext. The latter is particularly palpable in sonic terms in the performances of his band, Moon Medicin, slated to play in Chicago in September in conjunction with the show. Working with props, costumes, and performances designed by Biggers, Moon Medicin aim to revivify the project of 1990s Afrofuturism, the roots of which first surfaced in Sun Ra’s music in the 1960s and ’70s. Similarly, Biggers’s insistence on recombination and repurposing, even in the face of the contemporary horrors being visited upon the African American community, works against that very specter of a forcibly negated future.

Daniel Quiles