All Street Gallery is pleased to announce CHAOS THEORY: the spectrum of black abstraction, a group exhibition of new and recent works by a group of black artists interpreting the theme of black abstraction through sculpture, assemblage, photography, printmaking, and painting. Coinciding with Black History Month, the exhibition will be on view at the gallery’s 77 E 3rd Street location in the East Village from February 1 - 29, 2024. Depictions of voids, deconstructed bodies, and synesthetic emotional states offer diverse approaches to how blackness might be defined. Precarious, intricate, and even ephemeral materials depicting the human form underscore its fragility. Yet through abstraction, the self dissolves into textures, feelings, and concepts left open to observation and interpretation. CHAOS THEORY: the spectrum of black abstraction features work by Austin Sley Julian, Christl Stringer, C. J. Jackson, Faith McCorkle, Freddie L. Rankin II, Garry Grant and Shangari Mwashighadi. The exhibition is curated by Ciaran Short and Jabari Butler.
The exhibition draws its inspiration from Black Studies and Humanities scholar Christina Sharpe’s likening the black experience to the weather: “The weather is the totality of our environments; the weather is the total climate; and that climate is anti-black. When the only certainty is the weather that produces a pervasive climate of anti-blackness, what must we know in order to move through these environments…?” (Sharpe 2017). What we must know is how to navigate the weather and – in an ideal climate – learn how to predict the weather. While the weather is widely acknowledged to be unpredictable, there are a series of very real factors that determine weather systems. However, since these factors are seemingly beyond human control and direct interference, it can feel easier to assume the weather is random, rather than accepting the limitations of human understanding. Yet there is an inherent power that stems from accepting the inevitability of chaos; from such an admission comes a greater sense of sovereignty over one’s self.
While working to predict weather systems, the American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz found that slight variations in data points led to the prediction of drastically different forecasts. This birthed the idea of “the butterfly effect,” various formulaic time traveling movies, and, most importantly, Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory is an interdisciplinary area of scientific study and branch of mathematics focused on underlying patterns and deterministic laws of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, and were once thought to have completely random states of disorder and irregularities (Bishop 2015). In other words, what some perceive as chaos is actually a chain of purposeful occurrences.
When considering chaos theory on a social level, specifically in relation to systems of identity, the theory feels adept to contextualize the experiences of black people in America. There is a lack of control that black people must face in navigating the world regarding outward perception and the various ways perception reverberates through life in terms of safety, socioeconomics, and freedom. Black existences are still highly shaped by slavery as a foundational American origin story. Since enslavement, there have been various inflection points throughout American history leading into the present that have both simultaneously been a symptom of the weather and a further contributor to establishing and perpetuating the climate. Similarly to meteorology, loose patterns and trends can be deduced when considering enough data points, but without an omniscient ability to consider every potential factor, depth of understanding is limited. This inherent lack of control produces a subtle awareness of one’s stature within dominant hierarchies, which results in a constant state of preparedness. The weather can shift at any time and the only certainty is uncertainty. Predicting weather becomes impossible and it feels more feasible to accept the chaos and volatility, and learn to adapt.
Adaptation is a crucial function of survival that has allowed the black diaspora to thrive throughout American history, which has taken very concise shape in art. Various black artforms that are simply regarded as entertainment today were birthed as a means of resistance to outside societal pressure. During slavery, song was used as a means to covertly communicate about the Underground Railroad, allowing “pilots” and “conductors” to connect with “passengers” without detection (“Songs of the Underground Railroad” 2023). To those without prior knowledge, these information-infused songs were simply noise, and white people’s ignorant misinterpretations were imperative for survival. At its most powerful, art can be a tool of communication that literally hinges on life and death, but there’s a spectrum of impact and understanding that relies on audience and intent. Not all art is inherently for all people; some art can be for certain people and a certain level of confusion is not only acceptable, but should potentially be encouraged. By accepting ambiguity in art, the viewer has to take a more active role in engaging with the work, as answers are not just directly offered to the audience. Inversely, this dynamic can also make targeting a specific audience easier, as only those with a certain awareness will truly understand or appreciate the work in the intended manner. Here lies the often overlooked intricacy of abstract art as both a motor of confusion and information. In art, abstraction can often be seen as chaotic, or an indication of a lack of skill or imagination. However, such an understanding is rooted in a misinterpretation of detail and context.
Black makers and creatives have frequently utilized abstraction as a form to reject expectation. Improvisational art forms like jazz, break dance, freestyle hip-hop, and many other traditionally black practices leverage unpredictability to capture attention, honing misdirection as means to create truly unique and cutting-edge art. Rather than employing a traditional framework of resistance, abstract art does not seek to overtly disrupt, educate, or indoctrinate, but insists on multiplicities of existence and interpretation. The onus is not put on the artist to make a direct statement, rather the viewer must work to understand and come to their own conclusions. Further, abstract art allows a multiplicity of black identities to exist beyond a monolith, as not all black people will understand the work of all black artists. Through this genre, the pressure to make representational art diminishes and one can work from their individuality rather than seek to reflect the entire black experience. Accepting that there is a spectrum of experience that will allow specific works to resonate in different ways with different people disambiguates the mystery and perceived chaos intertwined within abstract art. With this acceptance, one is then presented with options: look harder, disengage, or dismiss.
In mainstream media and art, blackness is often abstracted into caricatures and one-dimensional portrayals through a white lens. The roles black people play in the imagination of white culture are often firmly cemented on a binary of extremes. Black art is most palatable when it is controllable, thus is the function of genre, putting complex creative output into neat boxes to be easily consumed. White supremacy is ingrained into a global construct of consumption and ownership, which manifests very directly into the critique and commodification of black art. The expected categorizations of black art are rooted in two base feelings: sadness and joy. In the realm of sadness is also anger, pain, trauma, death, which explore the assumed struggle and burden of being black. Inversely, joy centers the positive and resilient aspects of blackness, and intends to uplift and celebrate a culture that has not only endured but thrived through great hardship. Regardless of the content of work, black artists will be inevitably forced into one of these classifications and likely equated with the negative connotations of either bitterness or docility. Although perceived as a dichotomy, the actual effect is further perpetuating the idea of a monolithic black experience because such base definitions of art operate under the assumption that black people are inherently ignorant and incapable of nuanced interpretations of their feelings.
Art provides many tools of self-empowerment and defiance, but perhaps the most radical and potent is the embrace of a perceived chaos, to create without concern for a potential viewer or outside perception. While to truly create in a void is impossible, a self-imposed isolation from traditional critique and theory is the only way to subvert the forecast. In some form or another, such a manner of creation is anarchy and thus can be interpreted as the only way to counteract precedents that have been founded upon intolerance and prejudice.
In response to an open call, the artists on view offered interpretations of abstraction and blackness that were equally diverse, demonstrating an absence of a monolithic black identity, as well as artistic identity. If black experiences are anything but singular, this suggests that there is also no singular way to achieve disruption. CHAOS THEORY: the spectrum of black abstraction seeks to foster an environment that is not only permissive but also encouraging of difference and multiplicity of identity. The exhibition exemplifies that even when we enact definitions to create a semblance of order – blackness, abstraction – the borders of these definitions are permeable. This anarchical, chaotic disruption makes room for fluidity, coexisting and even conflicting truths.
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