Tinney Contemporary through June 24
WORDS Sara Lee Burd
In Wesley Clark’s solo exhibition he creates wonders that could be found in a fantastical library. Employing narrative devices such as foreshadowing, looking back, and mixing chronology, he casts light onto ideas shaping the past, present, and future. His artworks transcend memorializing a specific moment. Instead they serve as aesthetic markers that structure a much larger discussion that is enriched by the perspectives each viewer contributes.
The title of Clark’s show, The Prophet’s Library, establishes the location and the protagonist whose collection is on display. The artist provides a simple context for stories to unfold: “Everyone has heard of a prophet and everyone has heard of a library. Where does the word “prophet” take your mind? “Library”? The words have specific connotations in people’s minds. That’s the beginning in a sense.” He acknowledges that the prophet is no one person in particular, but he imagines he may look like Fred Wilson and is based on his friend Craig P. Bryant. The artist lauds Bryant for instilling within him the value of history, discourse, and knowledge.
“While some of Clark’s art references popular-culture games that convey messages directly, others are more abstract assemblages that require analysis of form and symbols to tease out meaning.”
To imagine what a prophet would place on his bookshelf, Clark asked Bryant to write titles for books that could further the discussion of African American people in U.S. history. While these works do not exist in written form yet, Clark hopes this will not be the case for long. The antiqued wood casements he presents are ready to be filled. As he explains, “Everything was built around creating a space for the book to exist. The whole point is that I hope someone takes inspiration from these titles and runs with them.”
Clark’s art comes to fruition as he forms and recalls stories as part of the process of preparing his materials. Beginning with raw lumber he purchases at hardware stores, Clark returns to the studio to distress it with his carpentry tools. “Mentally it is a performance taking place so that the marks make sense to me. I think, Where was it made? Where has it been? Maybe it came from a Black Panther’s garage sale. Maybe a mover scraped the wood when he wasn’t paying attention.” The backstories of the marks are left untold by Clark but prompt viewers to imagine their own narratives of the work’s history.
One challenge of inciting conversations around issues and ideas is mediating confrontation. Clark encourages interaction and play by incorporating games. He asserts, “They are more of a discussion than a sermon from the pulpit or on the corner with a microphone.” In Table of Contents, the artist introduces a range of contemporary concepts through a finely crafted crossword puzzle. The clues he provides stimulate reconsideration of words used daily such as race, culture, incarcerate, equity, Africans, capitalism, seen, and value, among many others. “Seen” for example is not simply defined as the past tense of “to see” in his puzzle. Rather, he presents a poignant alternate meaning, “respect,” garnered from reading Dr. Joy DeGruy’s work on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Clark clarifies his interpretation: “The idea of respect is ‘re’ ‘spect’ like a spectator, one who sees. Respect is then to be looked at again. The idea of being seen is much bigger when you think of it in that sense.”
African diaspora, or the movement of people from Africa around the world, is another fundamental aspect of Clark’s art. In Doing for Self, he recalls the Nkondi nail fetish figures that originated in the Congo and were used in religious rituals to protect against evil and punish wrongdoers. The foundation of the work is reconciliation. “I’m bringing the African spiritual element through reference to Nkondi figures to this American symbol, the flag. Now, that’s ‘African American’ in the true sense of the word.” For him the lesson of acknowledging the population drift from Africa and the numerous unjust reasons for it is to ensure that the future may be built in union with the past. He explains, “In many ways I feel like there needs to be return to many African traditions. African-American people often don’t recognize their origins, but this is about dealing with our contemporary blackness and including our African roots into the mix of our American cities.”
While some of Clark’s art references popular-culture games that convey messages directly, others are more abstract assemblages that require analysis of form and symbols to tease out meaning. The artist examines his approach and purpose noting, “When I’m taking in these ideas, I’m thinking through them because these are big ideas. It is history, and there are things that people need to understand, connect with, and talk about. Not everyone is grabbing the books to do so.” Clark has accepted the challenge of bringing the conversations he encounters in the literary world to the art gallery through his narrative-style show. His work provides guidance and opportunity for others to enter discussions that some may deem taboo, but are critical for defining the American experience now and in the future.