On ViewMedium Tings
This Place Looks Different
September 11 – 30, 2020
In painter Alvin Armstrong’s debut exhibit This Place Looks Different, everything is in motion. Double dutch ropes extending through two frames, slapping an imagined pavement. Kids playing ball, kids eschewing the pleasures of playing ball (title: Ball isn’t life, 2020), an orange-clothed figure running (frolicking? fleeing?) as cop cars cruise in the background. A rodeo rider defying gravity, clinging onto the bull’s neck. Even when they are supposed to be still, Armstrong’s figures keep moving: heads leaned towards each other, gossiping or observing, bodies out of the frame, partaking in mundane dramas only illustrated by their feet, staring plaintively with gazes that go on and on.
Nowhere is this sense of restless, twitching, haptic movement more clear than in the centerpiece of the exhibit, the 32-painting piece Malcolm Had Feelings Too (2020). Created over a period of 16 days in June and July 2020, each painting in the series features a close-up portrait of Malcolm X. From afar the portraits echo each other, a collection of repeating heads and shoulders against often bright acrylic backgrounds. Up close, however, the idiosyncrasies take center stage: the twitch of an eye, a crooked smile, facial expressions that are variously bashful, playful, polemic. It’s as if someone went through a video archive of interviews, pausing and screenshotting Malcolm’s face at random moments. As if he’s been stopped mid-conversation and dragged into the holiday photo, 32 times in a row. Repeating, redrawing, circling back. Looking at this series, I was reminded of James A. Snead writing on the place of repetition in Black culture: “the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is ‘there for you to pick it up when you come back’ … if there is a goal it is always deferred; it continually ‘cuts’ back to the start … an abrupt, seemingly unmotivated break … with a series already in progress and a willed return to a prior series.”
There is a difference between leisurely revisiting and the haunted circularity of Black life under the US empire. The sense of repetition in Malcolm Had Feelings Too carries an urgency shaped by the context of its making: a summer of uprisings, a stolen nation on fire. Pained returns, a circling back. I don’t believe a court decision could ever deliver anything like justice, but while we are on the topic of echoes—this piece is going to press less than a week after Breonna Taylor’s murderers were acquitted, which was exactly 65 years to the day that Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury. There are Black people in this country who have lived through both these events, and countless more.
While Armstrong’s work is molded indelibly by the past and a sense of conversation with archives, it is not overdetermined. Figures like Malcolm X and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Myrtis Dightman are portrayed alongside unnamed folks skipping, hugging, watching, touching. Even as we live through history and its violent echoes, we play games, we get played, we lean into each other for comfort or convenience. We leave when the cop cars are coming, and sometimes it’s hard to tell where the urgency and crisis of the spectacular meets the ongoing rhythms of the everyday.
This Place Looks Different is the first exhibit I’ve seen in person since the beginning of the pandemic. On the table next to the printed press releases, the gallery gave away cloth face masks featuring images of Armstrong’s work. As I walked through the exhibition space I performed the constant calculus of social distancing in a city, adjusting my direction in response to where others were walking and moving. But sometimes when standing in front of a painting I would stop scanning my surroundings and simply step closer to the canvas, drawn in by a facial expression or a carefully placed paint drip, the suggestion of a story. A group of kids sat chattering on the wooden bench near the back of the gallery. Walking around the room a fourth, fifth time, I admired outfits, people’s dogs, a bright pair of earrings. Everything was in motion.