Detail from Felandus Thames, The Thing that Should Have Never Been Born, 2010
Thesis. Painting/Printmaking Pieces Show. Felandus Thames. Yale School of Art Gallery. New Haven, Connecticut. April 2010.
The passage of race through time forms the dazzling core of Felandus Thames’s art. His work tries to absorb the bits and pieces of quotidian life—the detritus that remains from the passing of historical time. The historical transformation of racial representation is accordingly the subject of Thames’s passionate contemplation. One installment of such spellbinding obsession has been on view at the Yale School of Art Gallery in April of 2010. The exhibition, which featured the theses of Thames and others, is traditionally regarded at Yale as the culmination of a two-year work for a graduate degree in fine arts.
In Thames’s contribution, one comes to witness the visual language of racial memory and its passage in history. In particular, Thames’s work uses mixed media—duct tape, acrylic, vinyl, resin, plexiglass, inkjet, and photography—to defamiliarize the complexity as well as ordinariness of racial experience in everyday life. Like his previous works, which have been exhibited at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Thames’s latest production draws on different representational modes and combines them in order to realize his unflinching vision of American racial politics today. In the old as in the new works, the viewer can see the sensual irreverence of the painter and photographer Sigmar Polke and the hybrid sensibility of the artist David Salle, both of whom Thames considers to be his influences. What is more, Thames sets the black body, especially in his early works, against everyday objects such as advertisement cutouts, street signs, and Coca-Cola bottles.
There is, however, a marked contrast between the earlier and newer works. If his previous work tends to be predominantly concrete, his latest tends to be predominantly abstract. In early works like Delta Blue #2 (2004) and The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin (2007), for instance, Thames depicts fully embodied figures of Baldwin standing tall and a young lady’s torso. In contrast, the images in his most recent work are mostly disembodied, wherein the figuration, rather than the figure itself, holds the key to the work’s meaning. Where a full body used to be, there only exists a body part: namely, the lips. Consequently, disembodiment becomes the organizing principle in Thames’s latest work. In this case, the lips are not merely parts of a body, but rather the accent of a racial discourse. That is to say, the lips represent not only the physical, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the virtual realities of race, its many historical forms.
Indeed, the lips serve as the unifying trope for Thames’s thesis presentation. Thames’s favored image brings to mind the painting Mae West Lips Sofa (1937) by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. But whereas Dalí uses the lips to celebrate white beauty and the glorified spectacle of Hollywood, Thames uses them to scrutinize the representation of the black body in history. Seen thus, the lips in Thames signify how the black body has been historically reduced to an abject state, a representation that differs from the rarefied aura of Dalí’s “Mae West Sofa.” Where white lips signify fame, the black ones conjure up memories of deracination and enslavement. For Thames, then, the lips serve as a surrogate for the other parts of the black body as commodity. To cite the idea of the black body as a commodity is, of course, to cite the process of circulation itself. In the context of Thames’s work, however, commodification and circulation become highly charged concepts. His work references a past in which black bodies formed a circuit of exchange as commodities in the transatlantic age of slavery, a historical moment whose passage and afterlife his work powerfully illustrates.
Needless to say, an examination of the passage and afterlife of this history can only be thorough if it takes into account how racial ideas, objects, and practices transform and reiterate themselves across historical time. And this is precisely what Thames does with much success through the creation of a tableau of repeating lips. For instance, in a series of 19th century daguerreotype portraits of African-Americans dressed in sartorial attire, Thames overlays each face with outsized lips of different colors. In a mix of brutal sarcasm and good humor, Thames calls the shades “Revlon coon pink” and “Avon jigaboo red,” mirthfully mocking the commodification of race. In another daguerreotype of what appears to be a blackface minstrel, a work that he calls Passing for Salt (2010), Thames covers his face in white crystals, a prank that is truly worth its salt. In these works, Thames reveals his artistic sensibility by pulling tricks that unsettle the spectator. In an earlier series called Soup Coolers (2008), which pays tribute to Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans, Thames reproduces black and white images of lips that are blown up and printed on golden metallic sheets. True to form, Thames plays the seditious jester here. To look at these lips is to wonder why they grin, making the viewer suspect that the joke is on him or her.
More importantly, the lips perform a strategic function: they work as a metonym for blackness, whose iterations signify the changing representations of race throughout history. Perhaps this form of iteration is nowhere more evident than in The Thing that Should Never Have Been Born (2010), a piece that shows an overpowering profusion of lips in shiny blacks and reds. In this work, Thames reproduces the same pair of lips almost 230 times and fits all of them in a frame. The effect is disorienting, arousing disgust and attraction at the same time. Now the lips look like flowers, now they look like wounds. One looks again and now they seem strangely plasmic, metastasizing like cancerous cells. The repetitive gesture in Thames— the repetition of the lips as the organizing trope of his latest works—calls attention to repetition as a kind of performance. That is to say, his work visually performs race and its transformations across historical time. In doing so, Thames traces the historical iterations of racial representation in everyday life.
In a piece called Muybridge (2010), Thames tries precisely to represent the very narrative of race as it travels across space and time. Named after the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose collaboration in the 1870s with the California businessman Leland Stanford resulted in an iconic series of images showing a galloping horse, the work presents a series of circular frames arranged laterally across a white canvas. All six frames contain an identical photographic image, each one digitally treated, over which a pair of lips is then painted. As one gazes from left to right, one begins to observe the subtle differences from frame to frame, especially the last. The last frame to the extreme right is, for instance, defaced, while the lips on top of the photographic image are almost invisible to the eye, buried in bold scrawling strokes. Where Muybridge reveals the horse’s movement, Thames correspondingly freezes the metonymic movement of race as an embodied concept across space and time. And by defacing the last frame, Thames illustrates the complex politics of recognizing race itself. The disappearance of race is, as it happens, merely its reappearance in new ways. It is not the vanishing of race, then, but the reconstruction of its legibility: not the thing, but the way it is seen.
Thus, Thames’s work illustrates the logic of race in contemporary times—how race has become banal and hidden in plain sight. By repetitively exposing us to the many iterations of race across time, Thames behooves us to look more closely at what appears to be self-evident. To understand the logic of race now, he seems to say, means to grapple repeatedly with its varied forms, such that to look at his works is to witness the various transformations of race, its seemingly infinite slippages. Seen thus, Thames’s works can be understood as visual slips of tongue that lay bare the racial unconscious, so that to look closely at his art is to think visually about racial representations in everyday life. Consider, for instance, the series of frames in Muybridge. Once the frames are examined more closely, one begins to see that the photographic image, over which the lips are laid, reveals a vulva. Which lips, then, smile at the beholder? In this sense, one must not only look closely, but also attend earnestly to the kind of double speak that is inherent to Thames’s art.
Indeed, Thames has an uncommon ability to hold one’s attention. His work quite literally holds one captive, arresting one’s gaze, making one think about what is seen. For nothing is what it seems in Thames. Behind an image hides another image, and behind an idea there is another idea. Take, for instance, his 2009 piece in which a pair of big black lips—dramatically rouged and covered in a net of dots—is set against a golden background. The lips insist themselves upon the gaze, a floating mass against a shimmering space that gives them a certain lightness. In a work where Dalí meets Warhol, scale and shade make the spectacle. But Thames suddenly pulls a trick on the viewer by calling the piece Hottentot Marylin Monroe. Not content with mixing the surreal with the pop, Thames goes on to blend Sara Baartman’s 19th century anthropological appeal with Marilyn Monroe’s 20th century sexual power, creating a shocking, yet fascinating hybrid. Here, then, is the cultural work of racial beauty—the demystification that ensues when Hottentot Venus meets Marilyn Monroe. Indeed, the element of uncanny surprise in Thames lies not only in his knack for naming, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in his conceptual flair.
Needless to say, Thames’s art performs an important symbolic act. His works, or rather, his repeating lips, eloquently voice the racial questions of our times. What, for instance, is the visual language of race after the age of civil rights, or racial representation in the time of Obama? Is there such a thing as post-racial art? If so, what does it look like? How does one visualize race when the concept itself has, in some instances, become banal and virtual? That is, how does one represent race today when no single image proves equal to the power and coherence of, say, the slave ship? Thames’s art provides us with a good place to start because it compels us to be creative in grasping the slippages of racial representation across time. About such matters Thames certainly shows himself, even this early in his career, to be an old master full of new tricks.
Charlie Samuya Veric writes on issues in American, postcolonial, visual, ethnic, and cultural studies. He is a member of the Working Group on Globalization and Culture at Yale University where he is also completing his PhD in American Studies. His dissertation reflects on the techniques of the face in everyday life.
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