Last night at the opening of Chicago-based artist Danny Giles's The Practice and Science of Drawing a Sharp White Background at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, something happened to me that doesn't often happen: I walked out of the gallery space not really "getting" what I'd just seen. Like, at all.
I did everything someone who looks and writes about art for a living does—I researched the artist's previous work, prepped questions, scanned sources to get a sense of what I was about to see, sat in on the artist's lecture. The subject matter is even in my wheelhouse—I foam at the mouth at art that seeks to respond and examine whiteness as a concept. I usually know how to look, what to look for, what questions to ask, how to let what my thoughts see marinate in images, in brushstrokes, in wall texts. And yet.
Generally, this failure of looking, of comprehending, of appreciation (this is largely what I mean when I say "getting" art) comes about for a variety of different reasons. Perhaps there's a gap in my education regarding the topics that the artist is really exploring. Perhaps there's a dissonance between what the artist tells me what the work is doing and what it's actually doing. Perhaps the artist is unsure in their execution and me in my interpretation. Or maybe I just wasn't looking and listening like I should. This doesn't mean that the artist's work is inherently good or bad, or that I'm an inherently shitty art critic, but that sometimes it just doesn't click. And that's ok.
Despite this not "getting it," there are things that certainly work for me about Giles's show. The title for instance. He's referencing a lot of things here—the first and maybe most urgent is a reference to Black conceptual artist Glenn Ligon's "Untitled (Four Etchings)" which contains the phrase, "I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background," which itself is a Zora Neale Hurston quote from "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," an essay on how it felt to be a Black woman in 20th century America. I like all of these associations, especially to artists and writers that are seeking to fully explore Blackness within a white society as a way to explore the concept of whiteness itself.
In his artist talk, Giles tell us with this show he was figuring out "how to more fully and intentionally further this project of visioning whiteness, rendering it visual as structure, not necessarily of ethnicity, but of a logic of governance, of a logic of invisibility, of a logic of control and normativity from my embodiment of a nonwhite person." This project resulted in 18 charcoal-based drawings that used imagery from phrenology, a pseudoscience that used skull measurements to predict mental ability and traits, as well as riffing off of other major thinkers like William Hogarth and Johann Winkleman that shaped Western ideas and philosophies of beauty.
Giles told me that he wanted to use charcoal because of its blackness and how much it sullies a white space. Even though the show had just opened, you could see places where passersby had inadvertently touched the charcoal drawings with their bodies and transferred the stuff onto the pristine white walls of the gallery. He used other materials like gel medium and pumice to bring the porous and irregular texture of the substance to the surface, creating this sculptural and sandlike quality to the work.
The ideas and methods Giles uses, how he thinks about things and how he builds on his previous work is interesting—I can appreciate the labor put into the fleshing out of whiteness, especially as it pertains to art historical texts and space. But there's something about the leap between his ideas and the work on display that I just didn't "get." I missed the stop, didn't get the jump, made the wrong turn, showed up to the wrong party. And sometimes, that's ok—art is fucking hard!
The Practice and Science of Drawing a Sharp White Background will be up at Jacob Lawrence Gallery until February 28th—check it out and tell me what you thought of it.