When you look at a painting and smile, it is unsettling to suddenly notice that the painting is smiling back.
Has one unconsciously brought about the other?
This pleasantly unsettling exchange takes place more than once in “Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch,” the Bronx Museum of the Arts’ fine travel guide of paintings from the last decade by the Harlem-based artist, currently housed in the California African American Museum. Biggers’ skilful interactivity is an exciting leitmotif in the show.
The first broad smile – rather a sly grin – can be seen in the first room, which is painted in thick, textured black almost edge to edge over a surface not made of canvas but an antique quilt. Like Faith Ringgold, who began merging quilting and painting in the 1980s, Biggers references the two.
That floating smile is not a riff on Man Ray’s famous surrealistic “floating lips”. Instead, it is reminiscent of what is at the center of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” the little black-on-black painting of a toothless smile that Kerry James Marshall made a productive revival of the long in 1980 dormant genre of history painting that focused on the lives of black Americans.
It’s also part of the Cheshire Cat. The disembodied remnant of a now-she-she-it-she-it-not-not creature of elusive, bewildering whimsy, the Cheshire grin represents inevitable worldly madness.
Biggers sprayed a light blue grid on the grin that visually stitched a painted geometric pattern together with the assembled squares of the quilt at home. The contradicting use of a soft, dripping spray technique to create a solid, upright grid pattern suggests the public improvisations of graffiti.
The gesture is simple but definite: the relationship between the image of a lattice and the quilt signals an artist in conversation with painting as a material object intended for public rather than private life.
The same light blue paint, like spilled clouds of ethereal paint, is applied in brush-like, flowing patches in the upper right corner. The bulging, flowing shape contradicts the nimble geometry of the grille. This loose, organic element underscores the usual functional use of a quilt as a body cover, which differs from the straightforward convention of a square painting to hang on the wall.
An invigorating aspect of Biggers’ art is the strict rejection of an unproductive hierarchy often associated with quilting. When the bold, brilliant quilts of black women in the tiny town of Gee’s Bend, Ala., Took the art world by storm 15 years ago, it was often due to misguided claims about their resemblance to modern abstract paintings. Hanging the quilts on the wall, if they are intended for a crumpled bed or neat folding in a drawer, easily obscures the vivid improvisational experience that brings out the real power of the compositions.
Biggers doesn’t make quilts that are “like paintings”. He makes paintings, and they’re made out of quilts.
Ordinary bedding, nearly 6½ feet square, is a size roughly repeated in most of the 40 paintings in the exhibition. The scale speaks directly to the viewer’s physical presence, body to body.
For “Hat & Beard” Biggers also sewed red fabric rectangles diagonally across from the brush blue on the corner and added his own pieces of fabric to an already assembled blanket made by an unknown quilter sometime in an unmarked past. (His quilts are antiques, but nothing special.) Soon you’ll notice other additional quilting pieces – notably a scattering of six-petaled geometric flowers that are a variation on a traditional pattern sometimes referred to as the “Dresden Blossom”.
A flower is a blatant anomaly: Biggers designed an abstraction of a lotus, of which he planted a single example on the lip of the smile.
A lotus is a Buddhist symbol of purity and enlightenment that can emerge from murky waters. This encompasses both enlightenment and gloom: its radiant petals are sculpted from the infamous British drawing of 1787, which shows the cross-section of the hold of a slave ship filled with African bodies for America.
Running red color slipping through the smile can’t help but suggest blood.
The painting’s title, “Hat & Beard,” resonates with an admired 1964 homage of that name to Thelonius Monk, recorded by jazz musician Eric Dolphy (born like Biggers in LA). The painter’s multi-layered brooding is sad and joyful at the same time.
Biggers also works in other media, including sculpture and projected video. A horizontal, floor-to-ceiling platform in a gallery is the screen for a projection of fantastic breakdancers on a brightly painted stage. Taken from above, the sweeping windmills, headspins and handhops of the dancers look like from another world.
The format is like a Buddhist hip-hop mandala – an abstract runway for the earthly arrival of heavenly deities.
Still, the exhibition’s focus on quilt paintings is instructive. The race or ethnicity of the original quilters is likely to be unknown. But found recycling has been a very important tradition in black art since the 1960s. Biggers approaches these antique quilts as tangible objects with authentic, if anonymous, stories, not just as intangible images.
From there he builds up. Sometimes the result is a painting that becomes a relief on the wall.
The stacked, radiant square quilt pieces in “Kubricks Rube”, for example, are related to a traditional pineapple quilt pattern. The artist pushes the pattern entirely in three dimensions to become a stepped construction of stacked cubes that protrude from the wall. Think of Frank Stella in the sewing room and not the industrial workshop.
Installed in a gallery corner, “Kubricks Rube” even recruits the adjacent walls as the next logical step in the cubic format – from the quilt to the painting to the room. The architectural environment in which you stand is secretly included in the aesthetic conversation.
“Reconstruction” is a wall relief in which several quilts are cut up and then sewn back together. They are stretched into a gold-plated structure, the angular, sweeping shape of which is reminiscent of the folded surfaces of Japanese origami.
Biggers cut out linear strips of red and white fabric and white stars on a navy blue field. Then he put the pieces back together and added pretty spots of floral motifs to the jagged bunting to suggest broken American flags.
The flag-waving design of “Reconstruction” lies somewhere between a stylized origami landscape of peaks and valleys that are fused with ominous weapons – such as a stealth bomber or the sharp blades of a ninja star. The art object is a sharply reconstructed quilting piece with all of the conflicting social implications of the failed 19th century American reconstruction story.
Throughout the show, one has the feeling that these additive movements are invented over the artist’s time, rather than following a given design. You radiate joy in doing – a smile that resonates in many different ways.
“Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch”
Where: California African American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, LA
When: Until January 23rd. closed on Monday
The information: (213) 744-7432, www.caamuseum.org