Cultural references spill from Contemporary show

High and low art by Sanford Biggers


October 28, 2004|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

You've never seen a bed like this one. Its most dramatic feature is a 10-foot-high, black leather headboard in the hybrid shape of an Afro pick that's topped by a Black Panther-style clenched fist salute. Also contemplate the black, faux-fur bedspread and passion pit-worthy red pillows, and then slip into a comfortable reverie prompted by the lava lamp-like light being projected on a wall.

If you're wondering if you've stumbled onto a set for a blaxploitation movie of the 1970s, you may well be forgiven. But this Superfly-evocative interior design actually is a small gallery-turned-bedroom at Baltimore's Contemporary Museum. The bed is a work of art titled Sticky Fingers, one of the sculptures, mixed medium artworks and videos in the exhibit SanfordBiggers: both/andnoteither/or, which opens tomorrow.

That title initially might seem like the sort of pretentious art-world semantic conceit that dares you to try to say it aloud five times fast. But this 34-year-old New York-based African-American artist, whose exhibit kicks off the museum's new fellowship residency program, is entitled to work with objects and language as he pleases. It's a playfully cerebral show seeking to establish universal connections between seemingly different cultures and materials; and in the process it marries high and low art.

If you're a highbrow worrying that the lowbrow kitsch will be so much tossed-together junk, rest assured that there is a high degree of craftsmanship on display. Indeed, you're welcome to investigate such details as the raised veins on the back of that black leather comb-as-fist. There is much to appreciate in this exhibit, but you may find it takes awhile to tap into Biggers' sensibility. Although many contemporary artists explore issues of identity, and multiculturalism is the curatorial norm, few artists fuse so many elements together. Not every viewer will find every piece equally convincing on didactic grounds, but you'll be glad you put on your thinking cap -- or your dancing shoes, as the case may be.

Dance-like movement informs Calenda, in which bright white light shines on a mirrored disco ball; the backing wall is covered by paintings depicting dance step diagrams from instructional manuals. The title refers to a slave dance that secretly communicated such information as the nocturnal escape routes they could take while guided by the North Star. That movement to freedom has a symbolic link to a freedom of movement expressed by both the disco music of the artist's upbringing and the hip-hop of his maturity. Elsewhere in the exhibit are hip-hop-themed videos shot by the artist. The spirit also moves Biggers to make pieces in which he connects objects and religions from all over the world. His Mandala of Co-Option consists of clear plastic Buddha statues made in Mexico that encase objects including hip-hop-associated jewelry made in Korea. The statues rotate on mirrored turntables as if showing off the extent to which our information- and commodity-sharing world increasingly has demolished traditional distinctions. This is a good thing, from the artist's perspective, because he thinks of it in a manner akin to Jung's notion of the collective unconscious. Despite superficial differences, we have so much in common and we're all looking for the same spiritual things.

For shared humanity, look at the video A Small World, in which Biggers uses split-screen imagery to juxtapose home movies of his own childhood next to similar home movies of a white Jewish woman, Jennifer Zackin. You'll see that kids' birthday parties are the same.

For shared spirituality, there are several pieces overtly showing how readily American viewers can connect to Buddhist thought. In Poteau Mitan, a meditation-inducing Buddhist mandala shape made of linoleum tiles that has a mirror at its center is sited on the floor and another mirror-centered tile mandala is mounted directly overhead, enabling you to stand on one mirror while looking up to the other mirror.

"It's transcendence on a shoestring," Biggers explained with a laugh as he installed his exhibit earlier this week.

He also uses vinyl tiles in Cosmic Slop and an untitled related piece. These white dot-spotted black tiles originally intended for use as public bus and subway floors now seem like slices of a star-filled sky when installed on the gallery walls.

"Very low material in a different context becomes a map of the cosmos. I like the idea of transformation," Biggers says. "In African-American culture, scraps that have been discarded are made into something new and given another life."

Biggers, who says this while gazing into the starry heavens he has created, invites you to have a look for yourself -- or your "self."

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