Ivan Forde: Dense Lightness
Baxter Street at the Camera Club of New York
November 8, 2018 – January 5, 2019
Spending time with Dense Lightness, Ivan Forde’s first solo-exhibition with Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York, is to take a journey through large-scale works on paper and fabric that echo the ancient myth of Gilgamesh. Using self-portraiture and the antiquated photographic process of cyanotype, the young multidisciplinary artist (born in Guyana and raised in Harlem) presents a body of work where technical mastery meets a sense of playfulness. Through Forde’s subtle weaving of fragmented stories, a space is created to reflect not only on the old tale of rivalry, self, love, companionship, and death, but on more contemporary issues such as representation, race, and historical loss.
From one panel to the next, viewers find a singular figure at the center of all pieces of Dense Lightness: a bold and handsome black man who doubles, echoes, multiplies, and eventually fades into the surrounding landscape. The title of the exhibition draws on a line from the epic, “The darkness is dense and light there is none.” Considered the oldest surviving epic, it remains only in fragments. The tale begins as the gods create Enkidu, a wild identical double for the young king, Gilgamesh, to challenge his cruelty. The story follows the two as they wrestle and rival one another, before they gradually form a profound friendship. Forde’s show focuses on the relationship of the king and his double, often making the line between them unclear. Birth of Enkidu (2016), the only instance of the figure appearing alone, is a pivotal point in the exhibition: a falling figure is depicted in dark greys, sinking through a blue night filled with luminous stars and clouds. Down at the bottom of the frame, the silhouette of New York City awaits Forde’s fall from heaven and Inkidu’s birth.
Much of Dense Lightness consists of works illustrating nuanced moments shared between the two characters, who are represented as portraits of the artist. In these panels where photography’s black and white hues are attended to by a wide spectrum of blues, the artist gives us meeting points to contemplate on what constituted one representation of the artist as king and the other as a wild fabricated double. Fishing (2017) is a large-scale print on fabric hung from the ceiling that depicts Gilgamesh and Enkidu life-size and standing proudly by the shore. Forde plays with fashion, mixing Middle Eastern Keffiyeh, with bold polka dot fabrics, and white sneakers to bring the urgency of the ancient myth to the contemporary. The “blue-print”—Forde’s term for his cyanotypes—is balanced by a tinge of yellow and a dot of red on the caught fish. The image is activated by a tender glance shared between the two characters. A circle forms between the African-American artist, the powerful semi-mythical king, and the fictional protagonist, who is created only to be refused by his own individual identity. Viewers are given all three as one.
The most moving piece of the exhibition, Death of Enkidu (2017), is placed gently in a corner. The work shows a sobbing Gilgamesh exiting the frame while Enkidu’s body lies heavy on his death bed. A black void opens up behind him, holding within and in far distance, a bright light. The image is mostly void of Forde’s deep blues, what remains is on Enkidu’s body: a shawl covering Gilgamesh’s chest, and what emanates behind the geometric design that houses the moment. The small print is separated from the rest of the exhibition by a large work on fabric, hung from the ceiling on an angle. So, a simple make-shift alter is created for the profound image of loss. Sharp lines and dots move and swirl on the fabric without ever finding a center to rest. Here as Forde’s blues verge into complete blacks, the artist presents Shadow of a Mirror (2018). Having moved beyond the quiet and intimate moment of Enkidu’s death, viewers are left with Forde’s poetic title and the gravity of the abstract forms.
The exhibition pushes the epic of Gilgamesh beyond the parable of a king. One is invited to contemplate the meaning of his name, Gilgamesh, “He who saw the deep.” One is to yet again to marvel at the epic and its two heroes in their twinning, mirroring, shadowing, and echoing. By refusing to reduce the pair to mere opposites, Ivan Forde locates a subtle and fragile sense of timelessness in the companionship of Enkidu and Gilgamesh.