LOUISVILLE, KY — Billed as a “survey of quilt-based works,” Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch at the Speed Art Museum feels much less like an outline of one explicit part of the multidisciplinary artist’s oeuvre and extra like a file of his artistic course of general — tactile proof of the evolution of creative concepts; fields of curiosity which have held his fascination; visible motifs which have appeared, in numerous guises and permutations, all through his profession. The present consists of 33 quilt works relationship from 2012 to 2020 (the catalogue paperwork a formidable complete of 100 such items), together with two video works from 2000 and 2014.
Biggers, who is understood for sculpture, video, set up, music, and efficiency, started the Codex sequence in 2009, after he was gifted about 50 19th-century American quilts in various levels of disrepair. Those aware of his creative output will acknowledge some of his different artworks of their quilted counterparts: “Blossom Study” (2014), a sq. quilt of small, hexagonal patchwork onto which he has painted the define of a grand piano bursting with flowers, is a sketch of his 2007 sculptural and sound set up “Blossom,” by which he fused an 18-foot-tall duplicate of a tree with the stomach of a grand piano, its unattended keys taking part in his recording of “Strange Fruit.”
Similar surrogates are current, comparable to “Floral Seated Warrior” (2017), a portrait-oriented quilt of chunky grey and beige blocks with a blue, floral-print silhouette of Biggers’s “BAM (Seated Warrior)” sculpture (2017). Representations of “Lotus” (2007) — his flower shaped from repetitions of a slave ship diagram — and the broad, iconic purple lips of “Cheshire” (2008) seem regularly. “Incognito” (2014), as an illustration, is a sq. piece composed of bow-tie sections of two completely different quilts, a cacophony of sample and colour onto which Biggers has added the smudged define of a Cheshire grin, its sly smile barely hidden beneath improvised dashes of gold, blue, orange, purple, and lavender paint. The prospers are, maybe, vestiges of the artist’s graffiti days (Biggers grew up in Los Angeles, the place he participated in the avenue artwork scene). As with all his gildings, they convey a brand new and distinct layer of which means to the vintage quilts.
That Biggers is working with quilts is important, as they’re, by definition, layered objects — most frequently, a bit of batting sandwiched between two items of material and stitched collectively. When he first started the Codex sequence, he was intrigued by the contested legend that quilts had been used as coded objects to information these escaping slavery in the southern United States by way of the Underground Railroad. In the artist’s palms, the quilts turn out to be palimpsests: historic messages reanimated by way of the addition of up to date signifiers, symbols, and codes, comparable to graffiti.
A codex, the earliest kind of the fashionable ebook, was additionally held collectively by stitching, and enabled a quantum leap ahead, knowledge-wise, by permitting random entry to reference materials, versus the sequential entry required by a scroll. In some ways, Codeswitch appears to have fun and enjoy information, its references revealing a voracious, eclectic, and infrequently mischievous mind. Motifs have double meanings (a Cheshire grin remembers each a 19th-century English novel and an American blackface minstrel present; a tree signifies each enlightenment and lynchings); titles comprise intelligent puns (“Big Dada”), witty wordplay (“Kubrick’s Rube”), and different shibboleths of a extremely realized and cultured thoughts (“Quo Vadis”; “Chorus for Paul Mooney”); visible influences embrace such a motley crew as Hiroshige, Sigmar Polke, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Within a subset of works, Biggers trades his acquainted visible lexicon for a extra rigorous exploration of abstraction and a deeper engagement with the quilt patterns. In “Tyranny of Mirrors” (2017), he items collectively segments of three completely different quilts, every that includes an analogous hexagonal sample, with a silver-leaf sample that appears to recede into house, as if the viewer is trying right into a corridor of mirrors. The impact, not in contrast to op-art, is mesmerizing. In “Transition” (2018) and the onomatopoeically named “Ooo Oui” (2017), he incorporates sequins into comparable summary constructions with much more bedazzling outcomes.
In one other subseries, Biggers honors the trompe-l’oeil aspirations held by some quilt makers by adhering sections of material to geometric shapes made of plywood, which he joins to compose wall-mounted sculptures that resemble massive origami constructions. “Reconstruction” (2019), with its triangular panels of material that incorporate the United States flag, calls to thoughts the rhythmic layering of triangles concerned in folding a flag; when seen from a distance, it additionally evokes that outdated Cheshire smile, a visible wink as wry as the double entendre of the piece’s title.
Two video works spherical out the exhibition: the single-channel “Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II” (2000) is projected onto a sq. display screen barely elevated from the ground, replicating the overhead view of a breakdance competitors. The dancers are competing on a ground that Biggers designed from reduce linoleum segments in a round sample, prefiguring his quilting venture. In viewing the breakdancers from above, the focus strikes from particular person methods to the broader motion throughout the patterned ground, very like the sewn strains that traverse a quilt’s pieced material. Sounds of the cheering crowd mingle with the music, as if to affirm that what’s sacred will also be celebratory.
“Moonrising” (2014) is a seven-and-a-half minute video set to music by Biggers’s band, Moon Medicin, and options two Black males in a wooded space. They are variously bare; robed in quilts, hoodies, or mantles of feathers (the artist’s 2006 “Ghettobird Tunic,” maybe?); or shirtless, sporting denims, golden masks, and baseball caps as they roam the woods. Sung lyrics allude to the legend of coded quilts main enslaved folks to freedom.
While QR codes on the museum partitions present a glossary of themes, phrases, and historic figures to assist the interpretation of the quilted works, no supplemental written materials is offered for “Moonrising.” This follows the expertise in the United States, the place anti-literacy legal guidelines prohibited the written transmission of information amongst enslaved folks, however they may flip to the oral traditions of West African griots to convey data.
In reconnecting quilts with the physique and their primal function of bestowing heat and safety, “Moonrising” appears to eschew mental information for that which may solely be recognized by way of expertise. As viewers, we could not have all the codes to interpret the a number of conceptual layers of the quilted works, however we will watch males operating by way of the woods, hidden in quilts, earlier than unfurling them in an open area, and are available nearer to understanding the large concern and hazard of escape, in addition to its potential for magnificent freedom.
Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch continues at the Speed Art Museum (2035 South Third Street, Louisville, Kentucky) by way of June 26. The exhibition was co-organized by the Bronx Museum of the Arts and Rivers Institute for Contemporary Art & Thought, and co-curated by Dr. Andrea Andersson and Antonio Sergio Bessa.