In the show at the Art Gallery of Ontario, there is a canvas called Exhu which, after a search online for images, one comes across reproductions racked serially — like slides in a light box or more appropriately like stencilled graffiti. In the show the AGO has hung this vital piece in a corner spot but wouldn’t it have been superb to be greeted by the depiction of the Orisha of the crossroads at the entrance to the show — to serve his traditional function of opening the way?
bell hooks in her essay which first appeared in Art in America on Basquiat (“Altars of Sacrifice: Re-membering Basquiat” reprinted in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations) draws on the work of David Napier (Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology) to comment astutely on the strange being just out of range, the exotic not being completely alien. She reads this liminal position as presenting for the black male subject (and by implication others subjected to assimilation) a bind. She offers this observation on Basquiat:
For the white art world to recognize Basquiat, he had to sacrifice those parts of himself they would not be interested in or fascinated by. Black but assimilated, Basquiat claimed the space of the exotic as though it were a new frontier, waiting only to be colonized. He made of that cultural space within whiteness (the land of the exotic) a location where he would be re-membered in history even as he simultaneously created art the unsparingly interrogates such mutilation and self-distortion.
Re-membered: limbs reattached.
And with what painting would one want to end a circuit? bell hooks offers up Riding with Death. This is why:
Napier invites us to consider possession as “truly an avant-guarde activity, in that those in trance are empowered to go to the periphery of what is and can be known, to explore the boundaries, and to return unharmed.” No such spirit of possession guarded Jean-Michel Basquiat in his life. Napper [sic] reports that “people in trance do not — as performance artists in the West sometimes do — leave wounded bodies in the human world.” Basquiat must go down in history as one of the wounded. Yet his art will stand as the testimony that declares with a vengeance: we are more than our pain. That is why I am most moved by the one Basquiat painting that juxtaposes the paradigm of ritual sacrifice with that of ritual recovery and return.
In entitling the show Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time there is a big risk of obliterating history, presenting the work as a motley collection, eschewing the temporal dimension opened by experiencing and reading the art. The wonder of a second and third viewing is to be able to visit with the paintings in an order that makes a sense: begin with Exhu and end with Riding with Death. One does visit with the paintings. Very much in the vein of communing with invoked spirits in a setting where one remains unharmed. But open to hurt.
And so for day 1271