Gareth James

New York

Gareth James: Human Metal (2011): Installation view at Miguel Abreu Gallery. Images courtesy Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York.Gareth James: Human Metal (2011): Installation view at Miguel Abreu Gallery. Images courtesy Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York.

By Charlene K. Lau

Gareth James
Miguel Abreu Gallery
October 22 – January 15, 2012

Gareth James’ exhibition Human Metal at this theory-heavy gallery is the last instalment in a trilogy of thematically linked exhibitions that began at Galerie Christian Nagel in 2008 and continued at Elizabeth Dee Gallery in 2009. James’ work is dense and stark visually and conceptually. Black wall objects, sculptures and black-and-white photographs envelope the viewer in an overwhelming act of stifling oppression. The mood is representative of James’ dilemma; his investigation into a chalkboard diagram drawn by French philosopher Louis Althusser – seen on the cover of Althusser’s autobiography, L'avenir Dure Longtemps) – is a futile task as no surviving information exists. The artist thus becomes autodidact. To deal with this void of knowledge, James employs a multitude of references, including those from anthropology, colonialism and philosophy in materializing object-thoughts. There are many disparate references that convolute some of the works. While the result is a confusing maze read through the artist’s intention (or the wordy press release), the individual works instead present a much clearer idea on their own.

Gareth James: Untitled (Charles de Gaulle, Dress Uniform, with Black to White Spiral), 2011: Chromogenic print, 30 x 20 inches (76.2 x 50.8 cm).Gareth James: Untitled (Charles de Gaulle, Dress Uniform, with Black to White Spiral), 2011: Chromogenic print, 30 x 20 inches (76.2 x 50.8 cm).The magisterial work Human Metal Transformational Mask (all works 2011) asserts its presence at the back of the gallery, and is a nod towards both the transformation masks of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast and the swinging door-like storage solution used by British architect Sir John Soane to house his colonial collection. With swinging black boards, the mask simultaneously takes on the appearance of a painted altarpiece. The visual language of the blackboard obscures this multi-layered meaning. And, like a bad teacher, it instructs but does not explain; yet, its authority is unmistakable.

On another blackboard, the block letters  “WN” drawn in chalk refer to the words “Welsh Not” or “Welsh Note,” a system of punishment in the nineteenth-century for children who were overheard speaking Welsh at school. The offending student would wear a slate inscribed with these letters, and then pass it off to the next child who dared to utter Welsh. Whoever was left wearing it at the end of the day would be whipped. This punitive act is perhaps the most despised emblem of the way in which the Welsh have been subjugated to the demands of colonial English culture. The other side of this board displays a chalk-rendered Punch cartoon of the Rebecca Riots – the 1839-43 agrarian civil disobedience that was abortively pacified with the eradication of the Welsh language. The works that address the artist’s Welsh heritage are poignant in mining not only personal history but that of a people.

Perhaps the pieces most successful in conveying James’ point, our inability to interpret an inaccessible history, are the most literal. In a series of black and white chromogenic portraits, including those of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Charles de Gaulle, faces are obscured – masked – by spiraling rayographic repetitions of Althusser’s diagram. Here, historical figures are as indecipherable and inaccessible as the signification of Althusser’s lost-object. Such history is irretrievable and never to be known again.

Despite the philosophical mélange that presides over James’ work, I came away with  the resounding thought that colonialism is a historical and contemporary malaise larger than the binaries of oppression we've come to know: white versus black, west versus east, the Same versus the Other. Sometimes the greatest discrimination and prejudice comes from within. While some things are lost in history, the culture of a people cannot be extinguished.

Charlene K. LauCharlene K. Lau is a Toronto-based writer whose reviews have been  published in Akimblog, Canadian Art, C Magazine, Fashion Theory and PUBLIC. She is a doctoral candidate in Art History and Visual Culture at York University.