Art in America: In Banal Presents, Three Black Artists Intervene in Vast Social Institutions, From the Prison System to Education

In Banal Presents, Three Black Artists Intervene in Vast Social Institutions, From the Prison System to Education
By Tiana Reid for Art in America
December 19, 2019

Banal Presents was the final installment in a trilogy of exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art curated by Meg Onli and titled Colored People Time, after a black expression that frames a supposed lack of punctuality on the part of black people as the effect of a particular sense of time. Using this notion as a departure point, Onli argues that black artistic work in the United States expresses a temporality that troubles normative society’s focus on productivity. The exhibitions—which will be shown together at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between February and April—invoked what literary scholar and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman calls the afterlife of slavery: “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” This latest show was preceded by Mundane Futures and Quotidian Pasts, which explored what might lie ahead and what already happened, though all three exhibitions blurred the lines between past, present, and future. The descriptors in their titles point to the ubiquity of the subject matter, while also (given their near-synonymousness) highlighting how things stay the same.

Banal Presents comprised four works by three artists: Cameron Rowland, Sable Elyse Smith, and Carolyn Lazard. Although physically small, the show was conceptually large. Examining themes of private property, incarceration, education, and medicine, the artists intervene in institutions that seem too big to touch—even while they intimately touch the lives of vast numbers of people. Rowland’s Depreciation (2018)—which consists of legal documentation concerning his purchase of one acre of land on former plantation property and placing a restrictive covenant on it so that its value was depreciated to $0—walks the line between conceptual art and political action. Smith, meanwhile, engages with the ways in which the cruel logic of incarceration affects children. The ICA show featured her Coloring Book 33 (2019), a screen print of a page from a coloring book offered to children visiting inmates. Above the instruction to “Draw your own picture,” Smith has drawn a sideways rainbow and written, in a childlike script, not my father, not my brother, not my cousin, nor a cheap fuck, not friend, teacher, neighbor, acquaintance, not my fiction. Her Pivot (2019) is a sculpture in the form of a toy jack whose prongs, topped with blue powder-coated aluminum circles, resemble prison visitation stools. These seats can’t be sat on, the jack can’t be played with. Smith uses the aesthetics of games to insist that keeping people locked in cages is hardly a game.

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