Edgar Arceneaux's Library of Black Lies, a small labyrinth entered and exited through one cramped doorway in the lower level of the Henry Art Gallery, is modeled on "a cabin meets a geode," as the artist described it.
Billed as an architectural installation, Library of Black Lies functions more as a theater set piece in which to enact your own personal psychodrama about the contents contained inside. It feels more like a ship bilge dredged up from the ocean of our collective unconscious, heavy with cultural booty. As with much of the Los Angeles artist's work, the piece untangles knots of hidden histories, nods at philosophical discourse, and examines cultural representation.
Upon entering, the first shelves hold bloated, bound greenish-black manuscripts that can never be opened, much less read. Continue through, and titles leap out in familiarity, like the brightly colored children's Bible, while others are defamiliarized, like Re're Descartes's Discourse on Meth. The creaking wood underfoot and Mylar reflective walls lend themselves to the woozy unsteadiness of a ship at sea.
Burrow farther to the center shelf of the labyrinth, and you will find a number of titles related to... Bill Cosby. In contrast to the other books, I found this inclusion startling. On the center shelf and sitting next to Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species is Cosby: His Life and Times. On the bottom shelf are two twined bundles of four to five books each, including Cosby's Childhood. (I don't think Cosby's other book Fatherhood is there.) While some gallery goers may not be as readily familiar with a lot of the other books and their significance, everyone will recognize Bill Cosby.
I had a chance to ask the artist about Cosby's inclusion in the library, and Arceneaux told me: "Placing 'America's Dad' within the center of the labyrinth is a way of thinking about this person who is part of the canon of human accomplishment. What do we want to do with this complicated notion of the patriarchy on our way back out of this space of introspection? Do we just leave it there on the bottom shelf or do we take it with us?"
This last question has been wrested from the cultural landscape across disciplines over the past couple of years: Can we divorce the monstrous behavior of an artist from their work?
"I don't believe that anything should ever be destroyed," Shamim Momin, the Henry's newly appointed senior curator, who brought the work to Seattle, said when I asked her how we should deal with ongoing revelations about artists' personal conduct and the institutional obligation to frame the work. "I think we should know all the things and all the parts should exist. It's about how we address them."
To be clear, Library of Black Lies isn't about Bill Cosby. But people like Bill Cosby require us to reckon with them, whether we want to or not.