Obliteration Excavations 2: Back to the Bodies
In How to Draw What You See, the artist Rudy De Reyna’s reveals that:
To render a faithful, realistic drawing, you must be able to observe the basic structure of an object, regardless of how complex and obscured by detail it may be. You must train not only your hands but your eyes as well
Figure “K” in De Reyna’s text reveals a series of spheres leading into a single, penciled, smoky eye: “Despite its eyelid, makeup, or any other “extra” shape, the eye is basically spherical in construction.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about rendering, the process of writing across expressive modes, the focused sight that comes from working in ways outside, or inside of other forms, drawing being one of them, drawing as a physical force that directs one’s artistic practice and its manifestations.
In my process, lineation is something that manifests in many ways, the stream of the sentence, the scaffold of the line of poetry, the mark extending on the page, the arm stretched out at the shoulder, one hand pushing down on one shoulder, as the fingers stretch from the other, the toe pointed out, always in some line, no matter how wavy, or sharp in its ticking, its popping.
In a section on Holding the Pencil, De Reyna suggests, when drawing the line, that one should: "Swing the straight lines from the elbow, not from the wrist. Swinging from the wrist will make your stroke too short and your line will be choppy and labored." How to consider writing as synchronic movement both within and beyond the page, through the body, in its twist-o-flex, sight of the torso’s line locked in a headstand, or head turning towards the space of what’s led through the arm’s thrust, the extended hand in drawing, thinking, remembering.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I am lost. In the rush of travel, and misreading an old exhibit for what I thought a current one, I went to the museum to see William Blake’s exhibit of etchings and prints, the entirety of his plates from the Songs of Innocence and Experience, to find only two on permanent display. I encounter Blake’s “The Tyger" (Plate 42), and am taken by the quality of reddish brown in the yellowed paper, the flat, round, wide eyes of the animal almost vibrating. I would also take note, that day, of George Condo’s painting Rush Hour (explosive cloud, and lines) Martin Puryear’s sculpture, Tango (open semi-circle, resting), just after buying De Reyna’s book and reading that all objects may be captured through the following basic forms: the cube, cylinder, cone, and sphere.
I’ve never attended a fine art drawing class, though I did study drafting and engineering in high school, so I did spend some time drawing basic forms, working with perspective, rendering objects in three dimensional space, learning to create anchoring lines, however precisely measured. But mostly I practiced drawing on my own. My first experience working in a formal art studio wasn’t until much later, in Eve Sedgwick’s PhD Seminar, How To Do Things With Words And Other Materials, a book making arts class, where we would meet most of the time at Sedgwick’s private art studio in Chelsea, and craft our work using her supplies, exquisite paper, pens, rubber stamps, paint, brushes, desks, soft and thoughtful light.
I used the time and space of the studio to render images from James Allen’s Without Sanctuary, which features photographs of American lynching post cards from the museum exhibit of the same title. I worked in multiple places, Sedgwick’s studio, my kitchen table in Brooklyn, and, for a brief time, in a writing studio at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, where I worked, obsessively, on a number of drawings.
Here is one:
Looking back, I realize that capturing such photographs forced me to pay attention less to the subject of the horrific images, and perhaps more to their objecthood, the quality of their texture, the bodies, the faces, or artifacts caught and displayed. Reaching back, I did not feel, then, when I drew this image, any sense of the line as a source of freedom, the long trace of my swinging arm. I felt, instead, a sense of flatness.
Maybe my back was tight, as it is now. My intention: To capture the burnt head on a stick, and to mark the negative space between Will James’s neck and his face, the black fill of moving between one image, James “alive,” and then another, his head, “dead,” burnt, stuck on a stake, bleeding from my pen, his cooked eye still just visible, lines as choppy as labored.
How did you work with these images?
It must be so difficult.
I recall being asked these questions. Thinking of them now, I was, in a sense, slowing down my seeing as a way into the image, the act of holding onto this one postcard, one of many of the hundreds of these bodies, caught, killed, circulating. In a sense, I was interested in how to capture what I wanted to say, maybe what I felt, by looking closely, by drawing faithfully, by feeling the pen’s tip against the paper, the watercolor spreading after it, a kind of washing through what I was discovering. Perhaps this process allowed me the space to think, not about, but in the images.
As I write this, part of my stomach caves in, not gutted, as in I cannot say what I think, or note what I feel, but a space opens up below my heart, a cave. Maybe I am hungry. Perhaps this marks an insistent sense of something just out of reach, somewhere in the mechanisms of hurt, the isolation in the isolation, what brings me to wanting to re-reveal this image in my own hand, the sort of artistic impulse that Claudia Rankine mines so complexly in her Citizen: An American Lyric.
In discussing the artist Hennessey Youngman’s work, Rankine writes how he advises: “…black artists to cultivate ‘angry nigger exterior’ by watching, among other things, the Rodney King video while working.” She continues, “…Youngman’s suggestions are meant to expose expectations for blackness as well as to underscore the difficulty in any attempt by black artists to metabolize real rage.” However, Rankine describes Youngman’s articulation of the “angry nigger exterior,” framed within this important caveat, that is “the commodified anger in his video rests lightly on the surface for spectacle’s sake.”
Crucial for Rankine’s reading of Youngman’s animations of anger is Rankine’s speaker’s notion of anger as a “type of knowledge,” as she takes note of the bridge that exists between the “sellable anger” and the artist’s “actual anger,” an anger marked by her analysis of “quotidian struggles against dehumanization that black and brown people face,” the site of the enduring micro-aggressions Rankine explores, its myriad inducing insanities, absorptions and disgorgements, to borrow her language.
I know that the logic, thus far in this essay, should suppose that I continue writing about these in the context of my illustration, that I should discuss the space of attempting to mine the sight of inhumanity, reflected, absorbed, and presented, too, through the space of poetry, but something else is spinning out of this set of drifting assertions—
This morning, I was dancing, waves through my body, isolating different registers of reactions, ticking through my arms, which did feel long, and tracking these waves through my back, my neck—freeze—slow robotic head turn, pushing off of one foot, pivoting enough so that my other could point and tap the floor, toe feeding the exiting undulation, back up through my leg to my pelvis. I thought about the artistic black self (which is also brown, sweaty, a clavicle exposed, starting to sweat, good) as slippery being.
Here is what I postulate, there, moving, and maybe even now:
The subject of the dancing body as unfixed, unhinged,
evading the mark of being caught (if even in expectations),
modes, real, theorized, imagined:
Perhaps this is the move I am seeking after the drawing, the line unlabored?
To be both at a remove from the art, while being able to render through it, marks perhaps one’s ability to reveal the spectacle of violation, its embodied practices, its sweat, its moves left behind to remain as insistent as they are a site within which to react, to resist, to play, to linger, to begin to understand.
In this vein, it may be helpful to consider Adrian Piper’s notion of Art as Catalysis. Piper, in her Out of Order Out of Sight, Vol. 1: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992, writes of the exchange that happens between the artist and the viewer vis-à-vis the artwork, itself. She points out that:
The work is a catalytic agent, in that it promotes a change in another entity (the viewer) without undergoing any permanent change itself. The value of the work may then be measured in terms of the strength of the change, rather than whether the change accords positively or negatively with some aesthetic standard. In this sense, the work as such is nonexistent except when it functions as a medium of change between the artist and the viewer.
What Piper affords here, I think, is a way of understanding and attending to the work of rendering obliteration, marking its fluidity. This is to say, that the subject—say the violated black body—as spectacle demands an encounter beyond its static display, rendered in its activities.
Central to this reader of Rankine’s work, its composite and twisting site of rage, cycling through its stories and images I am still exploring, and Piper’s notion of art as catalysis reveals the complexity in a powerful exchange between bodies, to include those violating, and those violated, those obliterating, and those obliterated.
In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault explores the power dynamic at play around the “condemned” body, its narrative of ownership bound by violence and display. His work helps to reveal how this body functions as a vehicle through which power circulates. He writes that, “…the body is conceived not as property, but as strategy, that its effects of domination are attributed…to dispositions, manouevers, tactics, techniques, functionings; that one should decipher in it a network of relations, constantly in tension, in activity…” Somewhere between the catalytic state (Piper)—and the extenuated disgorgements (Rankine), I am keen to explore these questions: How to work with the black body as a field to borrow Foucault, “conceived not as property, but as strategy?” How to contend with its obliteration via the techniques of lynching’s lasting histories, and its current functionings projected and displayed though the photographs, and the related atrocities that extend beyond them?
There is often no immediate straight line. Yet the message is insistent, the facts of the violated black body extraordinarily present, ubiquitous, somehow, and I am open to recall another figure I drew:
Detectives in Brooklyn are working hard to apprehend the killer of Rashawn Brazell, a 19-year-old gay Bushwick man, whose dismembered limbs were discovered in a Brooklyn subway tunnel last week.
Another head removed, another place, another body unfound, found. How does the viewer, here, understand the relationship between what I attempted here to capture, then? Where is the line that suddenly moves outside of history, even my own set of logics from citation to site, author to artist, oppressed body to oppressive strategy?
Who knows? I am fluid, my lines, waving. I am loose of the wrist and pour water, then tea onto the paper, am heavy with the black paint, yet fast with the brush, the light pull of the bristles down the page. I painted this alone outside of Sedgwick’s studio, on my floor in Brooklyn. I thought it was enough. I did not want to feel, perhaps, what I felt, then.
However the urge to capture Rashawn Brazell, whole, in the face of the news, the facts of his dismembered body left a few miles from my place then, a line along a tunnel I, too, would travel. His parts found, though his murder is still unsolved, as his pelvic bones were discovered in a pile somewhere—and in a box, bloody drill bits.
I remember wanting to capture the sweetness of Rashawn Brazell’s face, trying to draw the same version of him again and again, all the while, knowing he was “hacked apart”—my activity: to record, to make, to render.
My eye is not spherical. I was, then, proud of getting his eyes right. I am sharp with primary colors that blend, lighten, and float into an awareness that reveals no limit of his face, obliterated, whole, obliterated, whole, tick, line, pivot, lower now, quads harden, grey clouds, out of space, released along the line of history where, as of now, no-one is caught. However far, his body, goes. Here he is, again:
Poet Ronaldo Wilson earned an BA at the University of California-Berkeley, an MA at New York University, and a PhD at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Discussing poetry’s role in the American imagination, especially as a tool to combat powerful, persistent ideas about race, the body, and...