This text is published in Art South Africa Magazine (Volume 12 Issue 3).
Cullen Washington Jr: Black Moon Rising at Jack Bell Gallery, 13 Mason’s Yard, St James’s, London SW1Y 6BU (24 January – 21 February 2014).
The scraps of an artist’s studio or city pavements. Adhesive tape, different kinds, translucent, matt or glossy, some twisted and scrunched, all torn. Fraying edges and stray bits of fabric. Layers of black paint, washes of grey, splodges or spills of red. Here and there, corners are folded over, and painted. Perimeters and edges are asymmetrical, resistant to devices of framing and containment. Densely packed constructions invoke the thick crusts of urban walls: the ephemera of posters and street art. We can play associatively with the language of these works: in ‘Infinity’ fluorescent pink tape and a familiar red star, filled in with glitter, is located at places where fashion and politics meet. Inviting a dialogue between painting and collage, ‘Infinity’ and ‘Untitled No.5’, both 2013, stage surfaces that thwart tidy categorisations. Cullen Washington’s exploration of abstraction suggests the life of cities and the maps (actual and imaginary) that navigate our journeys through them.
The formal structuring of space in Washington’s work is imagined by means of marks, colours and borders. In ‘Infinity’, four empty spaces charted by black tape counter the densely built remainder. The decision to mark out, and draw attention to absence is suggestive. Politically, absences (thought of spatially) suggest all kinds of erasure and displacement. These are maps formed not by an official template but by memory, and the subjectivity of artist or viewer. Texts collaged into the work hint at the possibility of narrative and political critique. ‘Infinity’ incorporates a worn-out Steve Madden logo, some of its lettering scratched out. Fragments of words are sometimes upside down and obscured. A torn page navigates us to another kind of map, the map of an art world. It reads: ‘Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964-1980’, the title of a 2006 exhibition at The Studio Museum (Harlem, New York). Curated by Kellie Jones this show addressed important historical questions about what it meant for African-American artists, written out of official art historical narratives, to work within the ambit of abstraction, a language assumed to be inappropriate to urgent political concerns.
At the same time as his solo show at Jack Bell, Washington is participating in two group exhibitions: at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the Boston University Museum. The show at the Contemporary Arts Museum, curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, and titled ‘Black in the Abstract’ revisits questions explored by the 2006 show at the Studio Museum. The Houston show also locates Washington’s work within a historical context and recognises its contribution to abstraction as a contemporary practice. These exhibitions are crucial in making visible histories and artists excised by narrow assumptions about the meaning of twentieth century art practice and the mechanisms, overt and insidious, of race-based prejudice. Perhaps there will come a time when the continuous re-inscription of race, and racial categories forged out of de-humanising histories (even as they are still necessarily strategically mobilised) are no longer embedded within how it is artists and their work are viewed. Abstraction offers a powerful counter-narrative. It resists the flattening of narratives that attempt to reduce and contain the complexity of human experience and subjects wrestling legacies and contemporary mutations of race-based violence.