Jaye Bartell on Dustin Spagnola (reprint 2009, 2007)


Other Truths: A Critical Review
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Other(s) Walls
Jaye Bartell
“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  x 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. 

The Public Wall
on the paintings of Dustin Spagnola
by Jaye Bartell
May 30th, 2007

If you find a fossil of wall
you can give it your own name. 

all and all and all and all

There is no meaning to the final appearance of the wall that is not the simple hum of its interacting layers. All additions to the surface are possible. Concealment is the only erasure. An image cannot be removed from the surface without supplanting it with another image. Think of that wall on lower Biltmore, it shows constantly the argument among its marks. Or the bridge off Clingman, under which the pilings are always talking in mosaics.
There is an aspect apprehended, one line placed and later half-covered by another line. The change is not a distortion of a supposed original, but a thickening, a swelling in the circular pattern of trees. “Fuck Larry” becomes “I Fuck Larry” becomes “ I Fuck Larry Fucks We All Fuck!”
Scourge, of scars, the wound is healthy whereas the marred surface is hereafter always altered.

Laceration, in the way of gauze atrophying, the room unvisited ten years, the curtains disintegrate, windows bear through concealment. Open. And there was before something, the apparent black is nonetheless pieces of black, faceted of itself, made of many. What before gave face, what was covered by the splashing, by the fount of different colors, can again show. Peel a furrow, revealing screams earlier placed, covered in time with lazy paste of complacency, syrup on pancakes of mush, and “lay down, old boy, forget the jawbone in the silt, let the fire relax,”
Your face belongs to the exterior. That freckle on the lift of your cheek is a focal point for the sun which stares through the white plush, though unseen directly. The bulge under the lip of a crooked bottom tooth is a little hill, and the whiskers are grasses. Those hairs are ours, and the little bugs will make benign visit. Think of guarding it with a fence, a constant paper bag of protection. Some kids in the suburbs will slip out the back door unnoticed by their sleeping parents and scale the gate. You’ll find the impressions of their bodies on the forehead.

The wall’s marks are uncontrolled spills, and each drizzle had only the will of its own contents to direct its placement. An arch from one afternoon, a tear of that surface later on. No aspect is older than the other. The image is constant, the firm appearance moves, imperceptible, as a wind. One sees the possible form of a vagina, or else the imprint of a Cherokee arrowhead. The foxing of brush hairs become thin lanes in the composition, a pleat textured, the grain of unfinished oak.
Is there visible beneath the dark suppression the symbol of some gang, the colors of their association, the lettering collectively evolved? There is not one void, blank pure beginning. One noise sounded and its echo was another. The resonance involves every wave of sound and does no discriminate.
Look out the window, its edges are a frame of view. The pine with drooped boughs tasseled, a house, lighter green, behind, eclipsed, and on the down-sloped grass, darker from an earlier rain, stacked with rough boards, fragments from a disassembled fence, stacked on the grass, to be discarded. Sun exclaims through clouds to alter the hue of green and add gleam. Shadow of the house gains definition and fades again with the fading of light. and on and on and on, until the hill, and over that. A particular picture is an activity of attending parts. Do you want to change the view? Blight the landscape to a shape believed to be the proper arrangement? Participation is alteration, and the looking eye is a part of the scene as much as what the eye perceives.
The painting’s surface has its limitations
, and the edge is the end of the plane. The canvases are all but wrapped in activity, the angles of the sides participant as the so-called “front.” If you cut the brown worm there are two worms, and both are not the same as their derivation. A brick is its own wall, taken from a larger arrangement, which remains forever altered for the loss of one brick.

The idea is that the exposed surface receives, without resistance beyond the durability of its veneer, the impressions of visiting bodies. The constitution of the United States was written a very long time ago, the paper is brittle and will not accept certain inks. The script for the evening news is graven onto the television’s glass. The wall offers a willing scroll, and any who wishes to make an addition, under whatever risks of law, can make an addition. The cops tearing flyers off the telephone poles are participating also.

The appellants, the respondents, argue on the brick floor of the courtroom wall.

The business owner
 asserts the beige complexion of the exterior wall he owns. The pigeons leave a tuft of wing, or shit their petition. At the instant of the surface’s beginning, the aging begins, and the weather. Rain and rain, and late noon light, and spit from one walking to work, moss of early April, the grit that blows in the air, film from car’s exhaust, the oil from a palm grazed while walking an afternoon. The suppression of public comment is the repression of the public.

If the ideas of an individual are held impure, the individual is likewise, him or herself, believed to be impure. And people are horrible as much as they are argued lovely. They eat each others flesh in contention. But limiting the interpretation of experience to a single social position poisons the water we all must drink. All the images and all the script on all the walls is fit to print, and has been printed. Each surface contains the archive of its history, as scouring will reveal. There is plaster beneath the wall paper on which someone drew a floating balloon. And under that is more wallpaper. One is not eminent to another. If one is just they all are just. If all are foul they all are foul. What of the swastika, the absurd cock and balls, the painful mockery of anything and everything? On the wall, none have the final word, and the public is a surf that clears the surface of marks, though the sand retains the arrangement in the history of the beach. Any and every possible statement can be stated if its is stated. And any response can likewise come through, and will come through, weather surface is granted or used by force. Hang a cut of the Berlin Wall in the living room, you are joined by the people who have touched it, implored its stricture to fall away. There is no object but a synthesis of occurrence.