Opening reception Fri Aug 2, 6-10pm.
Garde Rail Gallery
4860 Rainier Ave S, 721-0107.
Through Sept 28.
In Journey into the Whirlwind, her memoir of 18 years' imprisonment in the Stalinist camps, the writer and historian Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg recounts how she retained a grip on sanity through her prodigious memory. With a single piece of paper available to her, she wrote. Every day she covered that one page with poetry, stories, her story, and then she memorized it, and then she erased the pencil marks with breadcrumbs. The next day, she started again.
It's an understatement to say that this anecdote resonates; it sings, and the reasons are obvious: the bravery, the stubbornness, the hard-nosed grace. Ever a writer, Ginzburg continued to write.
When I saw Antjuan Oden's coffee drawings, I heard the same singing. These tiny works--painted in an ink-paste made of hoarded powdered coffee and executed with a piece of twisted tissue paper on any scrap of paper available (on the back of prison regulations, on the insides of powdered-drink sachets)--were done when Oden spent 28 days in solitary confinement. He hid them from the guards, not always successfully. He drew the things in his head, things he wanted to see, trapped in a cell with no outlet on the outside world except for a small frosted window. Some of them are deft little sketches of animals (one that particularly affected me was a little dog with one cocked ear); others are darkly abstract, figures shadowed by other shadowy figures. All of them have an urgency that slaps your right around the ears. They scream off the page. They are something.
Oden served 15 months in jail--partly at the transitional center in Shelton, partly at Twin Rivers Corrections Center in Monroe--as the result of what he calls a self-defense stabbing in a fight outside the OK Hotel, where he was employed as a bouncer. He was found guilty of second-degree assault.
While at the transfer center in Shelton, Oden says he was jumped by a group of skinheads in what he describes as a kind of initiation ("you find the biggest black guy, and you jump him") and as a result was sent into solitary while the situation was investigated. "It was the longest I've ever gone without speaking to another human being," he told me. "But you can always rescue yourself. And the art--art saved me. I'd probably be dead right now if it wasn't for being creative."
I am usually unaffected by art-saved-my-life stories. I was not unaffected this time.
Oden is an artist and arts activist. He's relatively successful, by most measures, showing at a number of galleries across the country, including Garde Rail Gallery here in Seattle. He was a founding member of the Nu Tribes art collective (an artists-of-color group, which has since been re-formed and is in a state of suspended transition), and was, before his incarceration, laying the foundation for the Curious Project, a forum for communities and artists to talk to each other.
He's a big, gentle-seeming man, who speaks willingly about his experience, but not easily. He punctuates his story with significant silences, during which he clamps his mouth shut as if to keep from speaking. His candor is not the protesting kind of someone trying to sell you a story, but the curious bafflement of someone who was not believed. Throughout his trial he held on to a faith--which he now sees as naive--that nothing bad could happen to him because he hadn't done anything wrong. A trial by a jury of his peers--a concept he no longer finds compelling or true--has taught him that it's dangerous to be a black man in America. It's also taught him that it's dangerous to be an artist.
I'm not equipped to argue the facts of the case, which from Oden's account seems to have been mishandled, but one of the issues he raises has a particular resonance here: The prosecution used Oden's art against him. He happened to have created a series of sculptures that, he says, were about ideas of penetration--sexual, natal, emotional--which happened to manifest in mannequins stuck through with arrows and knives. The district attorney's office saw this as evidence of his violent nature, and offered them as proof; Oden's lawyer objected but the seed, Oden is certain, was planted in the jury's mind.
Let's take a moment to think about why this is utterly wrong. Art is not governable. Art is not an unforgivable action. Art is a place that the unforgivable goes to, and is a way to investigate the things about ourselves that society can't accept. In fact, much art looks at how the artist does and does not fit into the world, whether through ideas that resist words or images that resist colonization. Most of us contain latent feelings of violence; we do not necessarily act them out.
That Oden's sculptures can be brought up at trial tells me that, despite a lot of talk about how unimportant art is in the age of advertising, people are still afraid of it. Art has a lot of power; we saw this acted upon on the stage of the culture wars in the mid-'90s, when fear of art's ideas reached its raging peak. If we still understand ideas to be intent, then we are still a society that distrusts artists and the act of art-making. The impulse to make should not be equated with the impulse to do. If artists live as they create (and many do), it is an additive kind of living--constantly creating, constantly building, constantly expounding--rather than destructive. Oden was not telegraphing his intent with his work; he was investigating an idea about invasion of the self, an idea that bloats with irony when you look at where it got him. It seems, more than anything, like a case of passion and intensity mistaken for violence.
(In the end, Oden gave the mannequin sculptures to his friend Anne Grgich, also an artist, who took them to a school for homeless kids where she teaches. The mannequins, sans knives, were re-decorated by the kids with paint and puzzle pieces and graffiti, but the long arm of irony reached even here: When Grgich tried to show the amended pieces in another gallery, she was told they were "inappropriate." What is it about the human body that makes us so squeamish?)
Somehow this series of events, with all its terrible repercussions, hasn't soured Oden on art. After he was transferred to the state penitentiary in Monroe, he was able to buy art supplies, and continued to paint: this time with acrylics on paper. He was released this past March. His show, which opens this month at Garde Rail, features much of the Monroe work, as well as the coffee paintings and work made since his release. This work is still amplified by its context, but has its own life: riotously colored, with layers of images, some more loaded than others; one of them is a knot of little cartoon-style people yelling at each other. I asked Oden if the act of art feels different, now that it's not a matter of survival. "I take it a lot more seriously," he said. Then he paused, and pressed his lips together, as if reconsidering, as if weighing how what he says will be judged.
"Everything I am is because of art."