McArthur Binion: Modern:
On ViewLehmann Maupin
September 9 – October 23, 2021
McArthur Binion’s second solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Chelsea is filled with a new series of nine paintings in the two spaces of the ground-level gallery all titled Modern:Ancient:Brown (all 2021). We can readily recognize in each of them the familiar collaged elements or motifs in Binion’s “underconscious” of hand-written names and addresses on dated address book cards, his birth certificate, his profile picture, or other personal photos in repeated patterns and layers on the grid formation. They are covered in washes of ink on which hand-drawn oil stick lines run perpendicular to the support in horizontal and vertical directions that pixelate the whole painting, on paper mounted to board, into micro-sections. The paintings in the exhibition bring together Binion’s agility with color, a study that he has deepened for 40 years, as well as minimalism and geometric abstraction. In the first gallery, we see two works in which a large, graphite, drawn circle dominates two darkly painted squares; these flank a third rectangular work divided into four vertical segments of bold colors in red, emerald green, violet, and shades of gray, each of which is framed by a repetitive image into a patterned border. In the second gallery, the series changes to large rectangles where brightly colored all-over square tiles and vertical sections compete with the darker colors of his black and white profile images. The upper-level gallery houses a collaborative piece featuring a composition-response to Binion’s work Stuttering:Standing:Still (LDM II) VI (2013) by musician Henry Threadgill that is intended as a tribute to their late friend, jazz musician and composer Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris. There are two paintings in particular that anchor the exhibition: one in the first gallery that includes small images of the cropped head of a lynched Black man and another rather striking colorful painting in the second gallery on the east wall.
In the latter painting, unlike the others in the gallery, which are painted with a dark brown oil stick, Binion uses sticks in multiple colors to build its vertical and horizontal grid formation lines. This creates an interesting play with light and color akin to the reflections and changes of light obtained in stained glass windows. Up close we see collaged address book index cards painted over in transparent and thinly applied strokes of ink and divided into an array of randomized rectangular shapes in blue, yellow, pink, orange, green, and brown. From a distance, the blue squares with darker ultramarine blue lines transform into blue unified gradations, while in the yellow squares the orange lines look bright pink from afar, and the blue squares with yellow lines look lime green. The variety of colors and combinations of oil-stick lines on colored squares creates a modern musical mosaic, these subtle changes in color playing tricks on the eye as we move towards and away from the painting. When the colored lines start to differ, the painting obtains subtle gradations; we feel transported into the colors and into their world that exists beyond reality. The illusionary translations made in our minds create a transcendental experience.
There is one painting in the exhibition that makes us look especially closely to discern its collaged images of the cropped head of a lynched Black man. The effects of this painting are even more sensitive and moving. Its graphite circle is very subtle and eludes us if we don’t catch the painting in the right light and viewing angle, but the shape is made more visible with the dark varnish bordering the circle. As we stand in front of these large paintings, we acknowledge the pain, death, torture, and horror inherent in the harrowing image of the lynched man multiplied over and over. To live with this work is to live with the fragments of this image—the fragmented image of a Black man—to be reminded that even if you can’t see it without spending time looking up close, it is there and is as prevalent and repetitive as a pattern. It asks us not only to look closely on the micro level for subject matter, but also to pay attention to how the composition changes and becomes more abstracted as we move back and absorb the work in its entirety. The images are camouflaged under layers of washed and thickly painted black and gray ink brushmarks, creating a dark, elegant, smooth texture with different tones reminiscent of Black skin. These moments are highlighted by dark brown lines that make up Binion’s grid. When viewed from a distance, these hint at earthy allusions of reddish sienna and, much like the colorful painting from the other gallery, unifies the dark colors into a glowing image, its mystery amplified by the omnipresence of the larger-scaled circle. The border around the painting is akin to painted borders found in some early Italian Renaissance paintings such as in Giotto’s fresco cycle for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and presents a different micro-image: a black hand, reminiscent of 2019’s Hand:Work, his first solo show at Lehmann Maupin. The repetition of this image recalls the many handprints of the first urgent traces of humans in prehistoric cave paintings. Blue-violet, orange, and green alternate and create movement around the border, thus inscribing this dark circle. The whole painting compels our solemn contemplation as to stand before it is to experience its subject transcending into an eternal place where his soul resides in dignity.
These new works reveal how Binion weaves together ancient, modern, and Black worlds through abstraction and images, reflecting on each of their translations across time. The selections within the collaged “underconscious,” combined with handwriting, hand-drawn lines, and fluid ink connect us to a meditative realm and Binion’s personal history. We cannot wait to be surprised by the next evolution in Binion’s work.