I used to serve coffee to Huey Newton. Now, this may not immediately seem relevant to André Leon Gray's show of new work, figment of the pigment, at Flanders Gallery in Raleigh, which is, after all, the subject of this review, but I'm going to stay with it for a moment. I was working at the Stevenson College coffee shop at UC Santa Cruz where Newton was studying. He used to come in and order these massive espresso drinks. My memory of Newton says something about how our neural pathways become hardwired with idiosyncratic meaning packets that remain dormant until reawakened by a given stimulus. Case in point: It's almost impossible for me to think about Huey Newton without calling to mind that he's always gonna want four shots of espresso in his cup. Said he'd gotten used to drinking it that way in Cuba.
I think Gray counts on this phenomenon in his work. And by counting, I mean numerically. Gray's works are densely packed, impeccably constructed amalgams designed to generate associative meanings that accumulate in direct proportion to the amount of time a viewer is willing to take to absorb them. It's no accident that I invoke an equational structure to talk about Gray's art. The more I look at his works, the more they seem like conceptual equations designed to both record selective components of memory and experience and consider what it means to be African-American at this particular moment in history. Indeed, one theorem makes an appearance in many of the works in this show. It reads as follows:
x(N – 3/5) ≠ C
It's an equation about inequality, the centerpiece of which echoes the "three-fifths compromise" of 1787, which pertained to the taxation and representation of nonwhite people under the Constitution of the new United States. Every time it appears in one of Gray's works it serves as an elegiac coda. It signals the unspeakable, abbreviating the highest degree of injustice without allowing us to escape it.
Gray's equation first appears in "Head Full of Doubt," a mixed-media installation that includes a geometric patchwork of multicolored textbooks upon which is affixed a small chalkboard containing the aforementioned theorem. Below, large block letters spell out the word EXI[S]T. The S is offset from the word, giving rise to a paradoxical meditation on being and (in)visibility. On the floor is a child's school desk boxed in by a white picket fence. On the desk is a textbook titled "A History of the United States," upon which "This class is boring" has been scrawled in white. Of course, the word "class" cuts a double meaning here, suggesting both school class and social class. History is made to fold in upon itself in this piece, imploding Gray's memories of life in the "Wack County" school district with the echo of Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964 as it resonates against the recent Wake County School Board's decision to end its diversity policy.
Space prohibits me from outlining the seemingly unlimited meaning packets to be uncovered in each of the works in this show. Constructs exist within constructs. The spark for my Newton flashback was a piece called "What Does Revolution Sound Like?" which incorporates an empty wicker chair like the one that appears in the iconic photo of the Black Panther leader circa 1965. The piece also sparks associations to Muhammad Ali and a host of artists—Jean Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Nadine Robinson, William Cordova, David Hammons and Satch Hoyt, to name a few. A key feature of this work is a massive oval painting with Napoleon Bonaparte reimagined with African features. The work is done in tar, which in Gray's handling, comes off with an astonishing painterly quality. Gray's use of this medium reveals much about preconceptions about color. Tar, in this equation, does not equal black. Gray brings out sepia tones, coffee shades and warm chocolatey browns. The tar paintings anchor the gallery space due to their sheer scale as well as their fascinating visual effect—the dark rich depth, sheen and tonality of the material. It upends our preconceptions about blackness, revealing, as the show's title suggests, that color is an equation of the imaginary.