On ViewThe Lewis Latimer House Museum
April 9 – August 15, 2021
Shervone Neckles’s BEACON (2020–21), standing resolutely in the garden of the Lewis Latimer House Museum in Flushing, Queens, is a monument to the individual: Lewis H. Latimer (1848–1928) and his lifelong quest, the promotion of that mystical power electricity. BEACON is the physical embodiment of that power in the form of a giant, functioning source of illumination. In this tripartite capacity, it’s an artwork that straddles both the cutting edge of modernity and one of the most ancient purposes for creating: commemoration, and in its sleek simplicity it evaporates the distance between those opposite poles. Neckles’s work has always been fearlessly literal: she has printed images of Black families on bread, bluntly drawing connection between life, labor, and sustenance. While BEACON has a kind of Kubrick-2001-black-monolith presence in this paradisal little corner garden in Queens, it also represents the more immediate and pressing Black monolith: that of the unremunerated labor of four centuries’ worth of generations of Africans in the Americas (Neckles is from Grenada). In effect, the chunky, inverted-U LED-form at the center of the piece—a modern glowing piece of hardware directly descended from Latimer’s original creations—represents the often-unrecognized side of systemic racism: not-getting the buy-in. Latimer was largely responsible for the modern light bulb, was a respected peer and trusted collaborator of Thomas Edison, and helped found General Electric. He lived a comfortable life for the son of an escaped slave, but this is a very small house for a man who helped found a company currently valued at 253 billion dollars.
BEACON is somehow both human-sized and somewhat intimidating in its scale. It has no clear front or back but does have clear sides, which is a pun on the notion of a sculpture emerging from a drawing. It can be approached and viewed from two directions: front and back. Engagement takes the form of steps on either side which allow the viewer to rise a few inches and come face to face with the oversize light bulb pictograph, formed by a bulb-shaped punch-out in the stolid rectangle of the stele. This upward physical movement, which results in standing face to face with the sharp simple curvilinear forms of Latimer’s drawing, manifests an intimate but open-air sacral space. The steps emerge seamlessly from the bottom of the upright but are topped with composite stone pavers embedded with glittering fragments of a crystalline material, another visual detail/pun on electricity. While the work, as its name indicates, functions best from a distance and in the evening, standing in close proximity during daylight hours has its advantages as well—all aspects of BEACON are about light and its production, through reflection, refraction, and luminescence. Latimer himself never stopped creating: he was a musician and poet as well as an inventor, and this perpetual, self-reflexive process is subtly reproduced in the sculpture. Neckles has worked with the Beam Center, a Brooklyn-based program for New York City youth offering them training in metalworking, electronics, and moldmaking in order to fabricate BEACON, and she and the Beam Fellows crafted this visual statement about electricity and Latimer, drawing on high-tech LED filaments and touch and proximity sensors.
BEACON is sleek, but it pulls together many aspects of Neckles’s practice. While the smooth metallic finish of the work’s body, and the smoky finish of the plastic filament, protected by clear shiny plexiglass, extol the gorgeous, clean, and smooth textures of modernity in the same delicious way as a Koons vacuum cleaner, Neckles has always made sure to leave her mark on her work. Whether it is the hand stitching in one of her book pieces or the satisfying graininess of a hand-printed Xerox transfer onto paper, vinyl, or some other less traditional material, the artist enjoys centering a controlled but palpable DIY gesture in her work. In this case, it is the slightly off-putting arcane form of the lightbulb that enters the viewer’s consciousness. Whether one knows that the bulb is based on a 19th-century drawing or not, BEACON sticks out because of that foreignness. It also bears noting that silhouettes, another ubiquitous 19th-century public obsession, recur again and again in Neckles’s work—both in her Domiciliation installation at the Grenada Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale and her Provenance exhibition at Brooklyn’s Five Myles in 2019. In this case, the stand-in for Latimer’s silhouette is his patent drawing for the object. Silhouettes are perhaps created for softer purposes, such as memories of family members, but for this memorial, Neckles has exchanged the idea for the individual, and thus inserts a reminder of the contribution of both brilliance and labor that has yet to be fully acknowledged or repaid as we stand bathed, everywhere, in Latimer’s light.