Do you see the smile? Why Sanford Biggers’ paint will put one on your face
If you look at a painting and smile, it is disconcerting to suddenly realize that the painting is smiling back.
Has one unconsciously induced the other?
This pleasantly disturbing exchange occurs more than once in “Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch”, the Bronx Museum of the Arts’ beautiful traveling investigation of the paintings of the Harlem-based artist’s last decade, currently at the California African American Museum. . Biggers’ skillful interactivity is an engaging leitmotif of the show.
The first big smile – rather a sly grin – is found in the first room, painted in thick black and almost edge-to-edge textured on a surface not of canvas but an antique quilt. Like Faith Ringgold, who began to fuse quilting and painting in the 1980s, Biggers intersects the two.
This hovering smile is not a riff on the famous surrealist “floating lips” of Man Ray. Instead, it is reminiscent of the one at the center of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” the small black-on-black painting of a gaping smile that launched in 1980 Kerry James Marshall on a productive revival of the long-dormant genre of history painting, which he centered on the lives of black Americans.
He is also part of the Cheshire Cat. The disembodied remnant of a now-you-see, now-you-have-no-elusive and bewildering fantasy creature, Cheshire’s smile represents the inevitable worldly madness.
In addition to the smile, Biggers spray-painted a grid in light blue, visually stitching a geometric pattern painted with the pieced together squares of the household quilt. The contradictory use of a gentle, drip spray technique to render a firm, vertical grid pattern suggests the public improvisations of graffiti.
The gesture is simple but determined: the relationship between the image of a grid and the quilt signals an artist in conversation with painting as a material object, intended for public rather than private life.
The same light blue paint is applied as upturned clouds of ethereal color in brushy, liquid patches in the upper right corner. The ample and flowing shape goes against the lively geometry of the grille. This loose, organic element emphasizes the ordinary functional use of a quilt as a body blanket, different from the rectilinear convention of a square painting meant to hang on the wall.
An invigorating aspect of Biggers’ art is his staunch rejection of an unproductive hierarchy often attached to quilts. When the bold and shiny quilts made by black women in the small town of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, took the art world by storm 15 years ago, it was often because of false claims about their similarity to modern abstract paintings. Hanging the quilts on the wall, when intended for a crumpled bed or neat folding in a drawer, easily obscures the vivid, improvised experience that gives the compositions real power.
Biggers does not make quilts “like paintings”. He does paintings, and they’re made from quilts.
The common bedding, almost 6½ square feet, is a size roughly repeated among the majority of the 40 paintings in the exhibit. The scale is aimed directly at the physical presence of the spectator, body to body.
For “Hat & Beard,” Biggers also sewn rectangles of red fabric in the diagonal corner opposite the brushed blue, adding his own pieces of fabric to an already pieced blanket made by an unknown quilt at some point in the past. Mark. (His quilts are antiques, but nothing special.) Soon you notice other quilt pieces added – most notably a scattering of geometric six-petalled flowers that are a variation of a traditional pattern sometimes referred to as “Dresden flower” .
A flower is a glaring anomaly: Biggers designed an abstraction of a lotus, of which he planted a single example on the smiling lip.
The lotus is a Buddhist symbol of purity and enlightenment capable of emerging from troubled waters. This one encompasses both illumination and darkness: its radiant petals are formed from the famous British drawing of 1787 which shows the cross section of the hold of a slave ship, filled to capacity with African corps destined in the Americas.
The red paint flowing through the smile can’t help but suggest blood.
The title of the painting, “Hat & Beard,” resonates with an admired 1964 tribute by that name to Thelonius Monk, recorded by jazz musician Eric Dolphy (born, as Biggers, in LA). The painter‘s stratified rumination is both painful and joyful.
Biggers also works in other media, including sculpture and projected video. A horizontal platform at ground level in a gallery serves as a screen for a projection of fantastic break dancers on a brightly painted stage. Shot from above, the windmills, the head spins and the hand hops of the dancers seem from another world.
The format is like a hip-hop Buddhist mandala – an abstract landing strip for the earthly arrival of heavenly deities.
Still, the exhibition’s emphasis on quilt paintings is revealing. The race or ethnicity of the original quilters is probably unknown. But recycling found objects has been an extremely important tradition in noir art since the 1960s. Biggers approaches these antique quilts as tangible objects with authentic but anonymous stories, not just as immaterial pictorial images.
He builds from there. Sometimes the result is a painting that becomes a wall relief.
The stacked and radiant square quilt pieces from “Kubrick’s Rube”, for example, are tied with a traditional pineapple quilt pattern. The artist pushes the motif into three dimensions to become a stepped construction of stacked cubes protruding from the wall. Think of Frank Stella in the sewing room, rather than the industrial workshop.
Set in a corner of a gallery, “Kubrick’s Rube” even recruits adjacent walls as the next logical step in the cubic format – from the quilt to the painting to the room. The architectural environment you find yourself in surreptitiously engages in the aesthetic conversation.
“Reconstruction” is a wall relief made by cutting more than one quilt and then stitching the pieces together. They are stretched in a structure with golden edges whose angular and protruding shape recalls the folded planes of Japanese origami.
To do this, Biggers cut out linear stripes of red and white fabric, along with white stars on a navy blue field. He then reassembled the pieces, inserting cute patches of floral designs into the jagged bunting, to suggest fractured American flags.
The rippling design of “Reconstruction” sits somewhere between a stylized origami landscape of peaks and valleys fused with eerie weapons – a stealth bomber, for example, or the razor-sharp blades of a ninja star. The art object is a precisely reconstructed quilt, with all the conflicting social ramifications of the failure of 19th century American Reconstruction history.
Throughout the show, it feels like these additive movements are being invented as the artist moves forward, rather than following a predetermined design. They radiate pleasure in the making – a smile that reverberates in so many ways.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.