In his sculpture, drawing, installation, performance and film work, Edgar Arceneaux brings together disparate narratives in order to critically examine received histories, thereby complicating constructions of knowledge. Materially sophisticated, his works explore race and memory, bring to light connections between history and the present, and propose counter-narratives that include the viewer – physically, emotionally and psychologically. The MAC is presenting two works by Los Angeles-based artist Edgar Arceneaux: the video installation Until, Until, Until… (2015-2017) and the sculptural environment The Library of Black Lies (2016).
The Library of Black Lies is composed of a wooden shack whose labyrinthine interior contains mylar-backed shelving filled with books that appear to have been burnt or encrusted with sugar. The enigmatic selection of books, which reflects Arceneaux’s intellectual, historical and artistic trajectories, includes encyclopaedias, bibles, and publications on art and theory, as well as texts by prominent African-American thinkers or featuring media figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby. In a number of cases Arceneaux has altered the books’ titles and the authors’ names, inserting a level of humour or critical commentary into the library and prompting viewers to question what they see. The Library of Black Lies takes the viewer on a voyage through Arceneaux’s mind that also visits key moments in recent African-American history.
Until, Until, Until…, which exists both as a video installation and as a live performance, unpacks a particularly complex episode in recent American history. At Ronald Reagan’s inaugural gala in 1981, the Broadway actor Ben Vereen paid homage in blackface to the Bahamian-American Vaudeville entertainer Bert Williams (1874-1922), thus highlighting the fact that Williams was forced to perform in blackface throughout his career. Halfway through his performance, Vereen began removing his make-up, evoking the shameful history of racial stereotyping and civil-rights abuses before his decidedly Republican audience. Tragically, the media broadcast of the event the following day omitted the second part of Vereen’s appearance, thereby excising the critical intention of the performance – and derailing the prominent actor’s career for decades. Arceneaux has restaged, reconstructed and effectively deconstructed the event, reinscribing Vereen’s point of view and inserting himself into the narrative. In an age of heightened sensibilities, when questions of cultural appropriation are hotly debated and instances of blackface have been repeatedly in the news, Arceneaux’s probing work invites us to consider the role of art and artists in challenging preconceived ideas and revealing contradictions and ambiguities that are often overlooked.
Edgar Arceneaux was born in 1972 in Los Angeles, where he continues to live and work. From 1999 to 2012 he was the director of the Watts House Project, a non-profit neighbourhood redevelopment project. Solo exhibitions of his work have been mounted at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle; the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Mass.; Kunstverein Ulm, Germany; Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. His work has been included in the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and in group exhibitions at the Mona Bismarck American Center, Paris; Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris; The Main Museum, Los Angeles; the Orange County Museum of Art, Calif.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany, amongst others. Edgar Arceneaux is represented by Vielmetter Los Angeles.