In “Becoming Imperceptible,” his astonishing solo museum debut on view at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans through June 16, conceptual artist Adam Pendleton works deftly across media ranging from painting and video to silkscreen and ceramics to build an immersive visual landscape of politics, philosophy, and history. Throughout the exhibition, Pendleton retains a collagist’s sensibility, borrowing images and ideas from 20th-century black resistance movements, the French New Wave, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and his conceptual ambition is matched by the sureness and clarity of his artistic execution. In what could have become a half-baked postmodern fever dream in the hands of a less capable artist, Pendleton measuredly guides viewers through three stories’ worth of artwork, steeping them in abstraction but not overpowering them with it.
Moving upwards through the three floors, viewers first encounter Pendleton’s maximalist Black Lives Matter wall paintings hung with silkscreen-printed mirrors, then text paintings and geometric ceramic sculpture, as well as video installations and the artist’s signature Black Dada paintings. The versatility, talent, and confidence on display here are not necessarily surprising from Pendleton, who four years ago at the age of 28 became the youngest artist since the 1970s to sign with New York’s Pace Gallery. What’s unexpected is the exhibition’s location: New Orleans, far from Chelsea galleries and New York’s most visited museums. Given the politicized, socially aware persona portrayed by his work, Pendleton can hardly be dismissed as having forgone contemplating the implications of this. But as is displayed throughout “Becoming Imperceptible,” the way in which surprising contexts open up space for critical consideration is far more interesting to the artist than easy explanation.
As a black American artist whose work deals with history and politics, Pendleton has been placed in the cultural lineage of the Civil Rights Movement. His most recent appearance in Atlanta was during the High Museum’s 2008 exhibition “After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy,” which also featured work by artists such as Hank Willis Thomas and the Houston-based collective Otabenga Jones & Associates. When asked by art writer Dorothy Spears about his inclusion in the show, however, Pendleton answered, “You have to ask yourself: Is an exhibition like this a kind of segregation in itself?”
At the heart of “Becoming Imperceptible”—and perhaps Pendleton’s practice more generally—is a tension between a political commitment to black liberation and a philosophical suspicion toward the coherence of rationality and identity. For Pendleton, this is a necessary and dynamic contradiction. In his tribute to the late Black Arts Movement poet Amiri Baraka, published in the beautiful artist’s book accompanying “Becoming Imperceptible,” Pendleton writes, “If abstraction remains illegible in the work of the black artist, this is because black individuals remain abstract … because the appearance of Black Humanity remains a revelation, an exception beyond which we seem unable to move.” The first floor of “Becoming Imperceptible” visually displays this tension by juxtaposing Pendleton’s muralistic, protest-derived Black Lives Matter wall paintings with smaller silkscreen prints on mirrors and walls bearing images from African independence movements and early 20th-century European avant-garde magazines.
The enveloping effect of this presentation produces the feeling that all of these pieces compose a single total artwork, one that refuses to distinguish between individual points in history or separate movements within artistic and political avant-gardes. Through his silkscreened mirrors, Pendleton collapses the boundaries between historical moments frozen in photographs and the living present moment, including the viewers’ reflections in the image. This approach is wry and playful but also acutely political, a reminder of the lingering effects of European and American colonialist pasts. It is also the exhibition’s first instance of Pendleton reframing portraiture, a gesture he repeats later with a video installation showing Black Panther David Hilliard from a variety of shifting perspectives across three screens.
One of Pendleton’s Black Dada paintings is also displayed on the first floor, and three others from the same series are hung in a gallery two stories above it. These paintings, earlier iterations of which were Pendleton’s contributions to “After 1968” at the High, combine silhouettes of Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes with letters from the phrase BLACK DADA, indicating again Pendleton’s interest in deploying collage as a technique across different media. Black cubic shapes and capital letters are silkscreened onto a black canvas, defying perception and interpretation. The phrase “Black Dada” is taken from Amiri Baraka’s poem “Notes on Black Dada Nihilismus,” which is also the source of a striking text painting on the exhibition’s second floor. In that work, Pendleton erases all of the text in Baraka’s poem except proper nouns, creating an unexpected cascade of names including Mondrian, Jesus, Moctezuma, Sartre, and DuBois.
This erasure technique is influenced by the postmodern L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement, which treats poetry as a material construction, something Pendleton also does with his ceramic Code Poems, which abstract language into geometric shapes arranged throughout the gallery. These ceramic configurations are among the most aloof works in “Becoming Imperceptible,” but their deliberate abstraction is convincing enough that the significance of language, not the ceramic shapes, is called into question.
In both the Black Dada paintings and the text painting Notes on Black Dada Nihilismus (proper nouns), Pendleton incorporates practices from American poetic and artistic avant-gardes that had previously been separated not only by medium but also by race. His affinity with poetry, and especially with the poetry of Amiri Baraka, displays his commitment to the integration of creative disciplines as well as to the inextricability of politics and art. He calls “[Baraka’s] language the architecture of my freedom,” and “Becoming Imperceptible” shows Pendleton heeding advice the poet gave in the 1980s: “If you’re a modern artist who’s not some kind of cultural nationalist, you understand that you can learn from anything and anybody, see that the whole of world culture is at your disposal.” Because Pendleton takes this direction with the same seriousness with which he emblazons gallery walls with the words BLACK LIVES MATTER, his work feels alive with artistic and political possibility seldom glimpsed so far this century.
Logan Lockner is Assistant Editor of BURNAWAY.