Provocative singer-artist returns with a phantasmagoric installation at SFAI, through February.
By Marke B.
FEBRUARY 11, 2015 — A necessary reappraisal of the horrors of slavery and the black experience in the years that followed abolition is happening in the popular American consciousness. From big movies to major acts of historical inquiry — even in the dismayingly predictable backlash to simple, honest public analogies — slavery and the Jim Crow years are moving from abstract phenomena occurring in a historical vaccuum to real, immediate legacies that have shaped the United States in untold harmful ways.
Part of this immediacy is a sensual connection to the atrocities still being visited on black bodies — “sensual” as in deep physical response to the facts of those bodies being beaten, raped, tortured, lynched, and otherwise punished for being black, in the efflorescence of medieval cruelty that has gripped this country from before its founding and still blooms torrents of dark red into the present day.
M. Lamar’s challenging, beautiful, over-the-top “Negrogothic” installation at the San Francisco Art Institute (through Feb. 28) channels this painfully exposed sensuality through a popular goth aesthetic, explicitly connecting “dark” subcultural tropes to the legacy of white American cruelty, while attempting to reclaim slavery’s psychological and physical legacy through an onslaught of pure style. Sexual and racial roles are flipped in Lamar’s two black-and-white film excerpts (plus numerous prints, live performances, and sculptural relics) on display, which dig into queer BDSM and goth-rock expressions of master and servant and apply them to twisted slavery narratives.
Right as you enter the gallery, a slick Freudian bondage scene: The actual posterior of a naked young white man on his knees, his head and hands locked in a wooden stock — a kind of inverted glory hole situation, as the man poking his head through the stock disgorges excerpts from Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit (the famous “master-slave dialectic” passage, of course), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (the aching Middle Passage chapters), and essays concerning music from The Cornel West Reader.
This is both overly dramatic and sublimely ridiculous. Titled “Discipline 1,” it’s a live partial reenactment of one of Lamar’s videos playing on a facing wall, Badass Nigga, the Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero Remix (2013), part of a larger work, in which a heavily studded and gothed-out Lamar, mascara ringing his eyes, lunges threateningly at similarly naked and stock-bound figures (male and female, pale white) with a bullwhip.
It all sets a destabilizing scene of horror reenacted as fantasy tableau, the schlocky rock ‘n roll sexuality of bondage made plain and then dizzyingly placed in the context of slavery. Imagine Vincent Price as Thomas Thistlewood for the appropriately vertiginous mood.
Past the nine-foot-tall wooden “penis guillotine” prop with an aperture fitted to a dick’s girth (or that of a bullwhip), and beyond various gorgeous wall prints of black and white film stills is the centerpiece of Negrogothic, a wall-sized projection of 10-minute film loop Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, Part Two, Overseer (2014). Therein, Lamar takes the form of a seductive Red Riding Hood, picking cotton in a huge cape, while a shirtless, tattooed overseer looks on. Soon, overseer and cotton picker exchange roles, with a dominatrix Lamar firmly in command, inserting bullwhips into buttholes and horse-driving a phalanx of white slaves out of the frame.
Above all else, M. Lamar is a musician — his soundtracks for the films are haunting, acoustic-electro hybrids that provide a key component of the Negrogothic experience. In the ’90s, Lamar was a mainstay on the punk and performance scenes here in the ’90s, his operatic countertenor voice ringing out emotively over a piano at Josie’s Cabaret in the Castro or in various Mission punk bands. He moved away to attend Yale for sculpture, but dropped out after becoming “disgusted by the bourgeois art scene” he found there.
He made his way to NYC to reboot his musical ambitions, and built his way to considerable success through his recordings and videos, culminating in Negrogothic installations and performance. Talking to him, you’re bombarded with such a hurricane of intellectual references and nuggets of insight that you realize why music is his favored medium — he just has too many thoughts at once to put into words. Everything from Bill Cosby (“I hope in his fall we’re finally seeing the annihilation of the phony black bourgeois mythos”) to bell hooks, Ferguson, Salo, Sun 0)), and way beyond comes rushing out in a few minutes’ conversation.
“I wanted to place a certain aesthetic on the orgiastic plantation,” M. Lamar told me, “to make explicit all these things about slavery we don’t talk about. For instance, there wasn’t just female rape in slavery, there was a real legacy of male rape — and this insane homoeroticism as well, as detailed in Vincent Woodward’s book ‘The Delectable Negro’ from last year.”
Primarily, though, Negrogothic had its origins as a response to the work of Robert Mapplethrope, especially the iconic, problematic “Man in a Polyester Suit.” “Something about that image, and Mapplethorpe’s other representations of the black body, really set off something,” he told me. “Not just the well-documented ways that picture in particular negates the model’s identity by cutting off his head, literally erasing his personality, but how the art world is still entranced by a big black penis.”
In Negrogothic, that big black penis is replaced by a big black bullwhip, lubed up and glistening with kitschy sadomasochistic intention, calling out the art world’s — and our society’s — barely disguised, lurid fascination with the subjugated black body as a direct throwback to the legacy of slavery.
M. LAMAR: NEGROGOTHIC
Through Feb 28, free
Walter and McBean Galleries
San Francisco Institute of Art
More info here