“Other Truths,” an exhibit of new work by Asheville artist Dustin Spagnola presents a series of portraits of black cultural figures, all of them famous activists, writers, or significant in other media. With more than a dozen large pieces showing thick, mottled gray-white surfaces and blown-up, newsprint-style black and white copies of popular images overlain, a pantheon of heroes, of icons, is presented. Implicit to the work are a number of questions, about history, cultural definition and the often hard-won influence of marginalized individuals to affect that definition. Does recognizing the historical importance of a broad and diversely relevant group of long-suppressed people alter the sum of history, a history from which those people were so often excluded? Why present these people, and in such a uniform, generic way? Why present these people, over others? And, to arbitrarily end a list that could go on without end, why should anyone be moved by the presented images, or see them at all. Again, this is not a matter of the value of these people, their representation or tribute. It is a matter of their presentation as art, distinct from commemoration.
Before Spagnola began this series of new paintings, he discussed some ideas with local woodworker, Gabe Aucott. Aucott, who constructed the mounted boards for the show, asked , “Why don’t you paint other truths,” meaning, “why don’t you paint something positive for once.” To this, Spagnola said, “At first I thought to do paste ups of flowers—Illegal street art to make people happy. Nothing political (except the means), just pretty flowers around town.”
Until this conversation, Spagnola’s work has dealt with the fact of the wall: thick, muti-layered, white and grey surfaces, made of “acrylics, joint compound, and spray paint,” often riddled with gouges, scratches, and streaked finally with graffiti-like text and images. When not “tag” signatures or indistinct letters, stencils of political figures, symbols, or slogans covered parts of the surface. Overall, the pieces seemed to be cut-outs from a wall, a section host to a great amount of activity. Primarily, this “activity” has been negative, or at least despondent, “like an Adbuster’s cover,” Spagnola admitted.
“I’m interested in argument—[argument] brings things to the surface,” Spagnola told me. His work has succeeded in presenting simulations of what could be called the argument of logos, of speech, and semiotics, the symbols of meaning. Who has platform to speak, and with graffiti, who owns the platform? “Why come down on public art,” Spagnola asks. “Especially when it’s on abandoned buildings and the artists are not asking for money or personal attention?” I asked Dustin, given his interest in graffiti and its socio-political ramifications, if he thought there were some things that should not be written on the public wall. His response was ambivalent. “If you’re going to write something on a wall, for people to see, there will be consequences.” Spagnola’s sense of surface and its texture stands unique against other work in the so-called abstract realm, possibly because they are at once, and at times literally, concrete in their abstraction. His walls never appear static, and are somehow vulnerable, ever-gaining content as time passes and leaves its marks. One could slice through the surface and find more surfaces, and if it says on one layer, “you are free,” just beneath that it says, “You are not free, and never have been.”
Another question: Where was this show before the U.S. had a black president? To present a black history exhibit on the heels of Black History Month is not a bold political statement, not a radical act, as such. It’s the least you could do, like they say.
Spagnola explained that the people shown are to him “examples of positivity,” the human flowers satisfying Aucott’s proposal. “The whole black history month thing is total chance,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m saying with this, but I wanted to do something positive, and [this show] is what came about. Hopefully people will learn and think about these people as I have [while making the pieces].” Of the range of people included, Fred Hampton and Bobbie Seal of the Black Panthers seem to be the only figures whose program is not uniformly seen as positive. As with other activist groups formed in the 1960’s, such as the Weather Underground, the “terrorist/patriot line” as Spagnola calls it, remains unresolved to many.
Social judgments aside, we should know who and y are in a set of pieces showing their profiles, standing atop their first and third place pedestals at the 1968 Olympics, raising a fist for black power, for black rights, in the thick of the Black Panther movement’s activities. In the piece, the tones of the newsprint-style are particularly strong, as both of the men’s raised fists are a solid black, contrasting vividly against pale background. No embellishment is needed to demonstrate the gravity of the gesture. Researching the event, one will discover that these men had their Olympic medals rescinded for the act. Thirty years prior, when two German athletes gave the seig heil during the award ceremony, there was no recourse whatever. I was informed of this by Dustin, who then said that, if nothing else, producing the work for this show has made him aware of this and other stories.
In another piece, of John Coltrane, thick veins of black paint extend in wild rays from the saxophonists head, in a distorted halo. Spagnola spoke with great respect of Coltrane, commenting on his use of
musical ideas from the whole world—especially from India and Africa. He applied modal techniques to American standards like that, Favorite Things…he just took that stuff, and warped it, and that was his breakout piece, that and the rest of the album. Try to think of a world without Coltrane. If certain people were successful [in excluding black people], you wouldn’t have to imagine it. It’s the same with all of these people [in this show].
The largest piece, spanning two towering boards, is of Barack Obama, one of the only living or at least active figures in the lot. Obama stands at his podium, iconic. Despite his popularity, especially with the young, many are expressly wary and even scared of Obama’s immediate canonization. Comparisons abound, and all of them insidious: Stalin, Hitler—and this not from Republican talk radio, but card-carrying Obama voters. Furthermore, the comparisons are indirect. It is not that Obama’s rise to power resembles these unanimously vilified tyrants; it is us, the citizens and our messianic enthusiasm, who resemble them, the compliant and at times devoted public who initially granted the eventual dictators power. An economic stimulus package is not the same as a national genocide campaign, nor is there a hint so far at the Obama administration establishing work camps for social deviants in Alaska. In likening Obama’s stadium-scale orations to those of Hitler’s in the 30’s, the mass worship and obedience is at issue. One can’t help but wonder, “where is this going to end up,” and conclude, given available precedents “probably nowhere good.”
In the scope of this show, and in perspective of Spagnola’s broader “wall” of work, Obama proves a generative addition. With his appearance, those who preceded him come into relief. It is a question, though—do all these men share a kinship beyond race? Is Obama proud, does he align himself with all who are likewise black, for that reason alone? Does he have a choice? Are we to understand Obama as the culminating body, “the figure of outward” in the words of poet Charles Olson?
Why this show in Asheville? Says Spagnola, “Think about Hillcrest, Pisgah View, all these ‘apartment complexes;’ they are projects. This town is segregated, and no one talks about it.”
The show is good, finally. It is good work because it generates such a maelstrom of discourse. The ideas are present, implicitly, in the images themselves; Spagnola did not “create” them. But he did say something, and that something has definite and provocative shape, visually and conceptually.
Reconsideration of history, its actors and what they did, for and against progress of ideas, and more importantly, the liberty of people to simply live unsullied by all-out denial of worth, may not alter the sum of that history, but it changes the perceptions of those now living, those of us alive in the present, at the end of a line of time that will one day be but another point, taken further as right and good, or abandoned as but another falsehood. “A new world is only a new mind,” as William Carlos Williams said, and if the world is truly to change, and not just in image but in nature, in actual value, we must first change, and to change we must acknowledge those people who have urged us to do so with their lives and work. The work Spagnola exhibits provides the opportunity for that acknowledgement. And on these walls, the argument can and should continue to surge until the gray background of the wall flares with discourse, as brilliant with color as it is loud with speech.