Art In Conversation
Noel W. Anderson with Robert R. Shane
“No one ever looks at the puddle when the fire is going out, but the puddle will tell you something that the fire wont.”
On ViewJDJ | Ice House
May 1 – June 26, 2021
April 7 – June 6, 2021
In tapestries and experimental prints, Noel W. Anderson explores Black identity formation and its construction in media images. In his current series, Anderson has historic images of police violence printed on Jacquard tapestries. He then picks away at those images thread by thread, frequently dying the tapestry and inserting found materials. This process of erasure dismantles the narratives those images contain and helps the artist reach a material reality that begins to tell a different story. Anderson employs this tactic in other media using a chemical solution to selectively erase portions of magazine images.
Anderson sat down for a live online conversation with the Brooklyn Rail as part of its New Social Environment series, from which this present interview is excerpted. The interview took place on the occasion of his solo exhibition Reflect/x/tion of a Blak Cat Bone at JDJ the Ice House, Garrison, NY, and the concurrent exhibition of his work in Promise, Witness, Remembrance, curated by Allison Glenn, reflecting on the life of Breonna Taylor and the uprisings of 2020, at the Speed Art Museum in Anderson’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky.
Here Anderson engages with Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics and reflects on the anti-Euclidean geometry of Sam Gilliam’s curving and folding canvases in order to talk about abstraction in both a formalist and political sense. Anderson asks: “What happens when Blackness falls into abstraction?”
Robert Shane (Rail): In your recent work, you appropriate photographs, have them woven into Jacquard tapestries, and then pick these tapestries apart, sometimes making the images illegible. When we’ve spoken in the past, you’ve talked about these tapestries as a kind of body and that working with them in the studio is like preparing the body. Do you want to expand on that idea of “preparing the body”?
Noel W. Anderson: There’s this moment that happened for me—and I would assume that for a lot of Black people, specifically men of color—last year when they sent brother George home too soon. I wasn’t able to watch the video until a month ago. There’s this realization that I was starting to have that I could die tomorrow. I go jogging in the Bronx three, four times a week and I’m not going to lie to you: Police do stalk you. It’ll be nine in the morning, I’m in full workout gear, looking 40 and dad-ish, and they still stalk me.
I remember last summer I was jogging through the Bronx, it was like eight in the morning, and I started to cry. I lost my shit and I didn’t know why. And then I realized that I wasn’t prepared to die. So in the work, I’m trying to grapple with the possibility of my own death. As such, I treat the works like they’re bodies. Treating them like a body creates a kind of sensitivity and touch and care and nurturing of the material that not treating them that way just won’t get me. It seems to me that if I objectify the work, I may not be as sensitive to its needs, and I may not be able to respond to it. If I objectify it in a particular kind of way, or if I abstract it, it won’t trust me enough to give me what I need. You see, oh, man, we just went to an object-oriented ontology. Hello, Graham Harman. You see, that’s a Derridean flip, I didn’t think about that.
So when I’m picking those threads, there’s a weird thing, because of the seams. A lot of the big ones are stitched together, so I have to separate the image into a bunch of separate tapestries and have them separately woven and stitched together. When you’re pulling the threads out, you can bust the seam, you can bust the body. And I realized that when we were picking the threads in Hood Reflec/x/tions (2021) there’s only one scene that’s connecting two separate tapestries together to make this bigger, complete image. It’s busted. It started to bust and I panicked. I was like, “Oh my god, the body’s busting! The body’s busting!” or like George Costanza says, “I’m busting. Jerry, I’m busting!” I panic. And I tried to stitch it back myself, as if it was almost like my father was dying in front of me. And if I could sew this thing, it would heal. I even jammed glue into this thing—did not work. But I had to take it to someone else who had the facility to fix it. So there was a kind of care. Taking it to my seamstresses was almost like taking it to the hospital. If you can extend that metaphor of the body, it was the kind of care that I have with them.
Rail: I think what’s really powerful is that you’re erasing the image, and while we might see that as a kind of destruction of the image, there’s actual care with what you’re doing with the materials, with the body—
Anderson: What you’re seeing is the reflection of the police officers in the hood of the car flipped upside down while they’re assaulting a Black man. There’s the hood of the car with the police beating up this figure, this Black man from the Watts riots. But I present it flipped upside down, like George Baselitz or something. But I also do it because I think the world in which that violence is acceptable is an upside-down world. This semester, I had my students read Through the Looking-Glass. And we talked about what it means for that other mirror world to exist, what those surfaces provide, what other world those surfaces which are mirrored surfaces offer, right? So if we think about Through the Looking-Glass, there’s a whole other logic in that mirrored space that doesn’t happen in this reality. And it’s fucking weird that in this reality that it’s okay—it seems to be okay—to abuse people like this. But in the mirror world, right through the looking glass, I see them differently.
I have a series of tapestries coming out which are puddles on the ground. No one ever looks at the puddle when the fire is going out, but the puddle will tell you something that the fire won’t. And I think all these ways of talking about how to experience the world occur because I’m trying to be available to what the world’s giving me. Let’s continue with the mirror.
Rail: Yeah, this notion of mirroring is seen throughout your current exhibition Reflec/x/tion of a Blak Cat Bone. The title has “reflection” in it: You were just talking about the reflection on the hood, there are also pieces like (hor)Rorshak (2021), or “horror shock,” and Dis’ Uh So She A Shun (2021), both diptychs in which the two pieces are mirror images of each other; one titled Through the Looking Glass I (2021), and you have actual mirrors in some of the pieces, particularly Hood Reflec/x/tions where the viewer begins to see them themselves. As I look at your work over several years, in some of the earlier pieces the images you appropriated were clearly visible. The viewer can make out what is happening and how they’re a reflection of white supremacy. And as you begin to erode the images, they no longer reflect that—they begin to reflect something else, maybe a different kind of subjectivity. How do you see the role of the mirror reflection in this exhibition and your work?
Anderson: Yeah, again, in Hood Reflec/x/tions particularly, because there’s actually a mirror embedded in the warp and the weft of the weave, this kind of shiny object to the middle left. It’s interesting because it’s also embedded in the hood of the car. You see yourself on the hood in the reflection.
Rail: It’s almost peephole-sized, and it catches you by surprise. You’re just kind of moving with the topography of the piece and then suddenly, you see yourself looking back at you.
Anderson: Right, you’re a part of the trauma. You’re not complicit, you’re not out of there, you’re not out of it. You’re in it. But if we go to (hor)Rorshak, that’s a whole other understanding of mirror, right? Because that mirror is another kind of psychological mirror. You have an image of a man in the Watts riots who was being choked up. He’s got a chokehold being placed on him. And then I’ve had it woven and inverted it on itself, like a Rorschach test. Horror-schach, of course.
But also for me, it comes out of that George Floyd moment. It’s like, what does it mean to watch yourself be killed? When I watch that video, I’m like: This is me. This could be me. And then it gets into the work, a whole psychological dimension of Black trauma that I’m trying to work through. And I think the colors themselves are alluding to these horrific dream spaces that they seem to be a part of, but they’re not. They’re real. There’s that weird moment when you’re like: What is the dream? What is the nightmare? What is the reality? Is the reality the nightmare?
Rail: Certainly. And the color brings out an affective dimension that isn’t necessarily there in the “original” photograph. So while you obscure the clarity of the image, the work begins to reflect something else that’s not seen there initially in the photograph.
Anderson: I think there’s a material reality of looking that we get to. There’s a physicality to these two dimensional spaces. Seven years ago at the Met, there was this little fringe figurine, and it had this little spectrum painted on it and fired. And I read it and it said, “The spectrum means you are looking,” and I was like, “That’s fucking brilliant!” An object that tells you you’re actually doing the thing you’re doing. It’s very performative, right? But the mirror is functioning on multiple levels. It’s the psychological in (hor)Rorshak; in Hood Reflec/x/tions, a larger work, it’s about seeing yourself in the trauma, and understanding you are not outside of it, hopefully to link us all together as a connected oneness, a unit.
But the reality is that when some people come to the work, they already have a kind of prejudice. And they’re not available for what could really return to them, like good therapy.
I think that’s where abstraction—let’s talk about abstraction, right? Because that’s where I think it’s taking me. Initially, it started with the pages from Ebony magazine. These are up right now at the Promise, Witness, Remembrance show at the Speed Art Museum, the brilliant Breonna Taylor show. I have five of these in that exhibition, and I’m really honored to be in it. I mixed a chemical solution, and I was erasing. I was doing these all during grad school, because I wanted to get really literal. I was kind of out of my mind then: you’re in the studio as a grad student at Yale from nine in the morning ’til three a.m. You’re bound to have delusions, you see? And I was like, “What the fuck am I staring at?” and I just realized that the image itself was just a bunch of particles on paper. And if I could do a kind of Rauschenberg-kills-de Kooning, I could take this Black archive, and I could fuss with it. And once I was able to figure out how to gesturally remove the ink with this solution, everything opened up. I realized that these images that defined me were not real. And thus, I needed to kind of grapple with who I was—very existential, I guess. But it also allowed me to realize that I could also project onto these pages what I wanted to, because I didn’t have to fuss with all the other material that was initially there.
And I think the same thing happens materially with the tapestries as I pick them. Because I actually thought about them the way I thought about the Ebony magazines: it’s just a series of ink dots, or in this case, threads that make up an image. And if I could mess with them, I could open up the image to all sorts of other possibilities. That’s what abstraction gives me.
Those images are not that interesting to me. You know, those images replicate the trauma that I’m trying to not only deal with—not overcome, but undergo. Overcoming in a way is not the way to go. We need a Dr. Holland-way: we must undergo. We must go through the thing. I’m trying to do that in the work. I had this conversation with the brilliant curator of Promise, Witness, Remembrance, Allison Glenn, and she radically reframed the erasure for me. She allowed me to see the promise that this’ll go somewhere. Also doing my own personal therapy and doing couples therapy allowed me to understand that if I just trust what this thing or whatever this experience will give me—what it’s giving me now is much better than what it was giving me before. The work is getting better. And it’s because I’ve allowed myself to fall into where this abstraction is going. That doesn’t mean I don’t get panicked. But you know?
Rail: Yeah, let’s stay with abstraction a bit. Because you’re talking not only about a kind of formal abstraction, a kind of modernism, but also abstraction in a political and social sense. And as they overlap we can read modernist, formalist abstraction as problematic because it’s tied to a larger kind of social abstraction. You’ve often talked about “what happens when Blackness falls into abstraction.” Could you elaborate on that?
Anderson: It started with a panic. There’s a tapestry I have that I did in 2013. And it started with an image of David Hammons doing a body print. And I love that damn tapestry. I went ham on that son-of-a-bitch, man. I attacked it. I stained it. I was doing polyurethane and sanding. Now mind you, I was in a studio in Cincinnati that was like 2000 square feet. I was paying 125 dollars a month and I had space to do those kinds of things at the time. And I remember I got to a point where I totally lost the image. He had fallen into abstraction. I couldn’t find, I couldn’t locate David Hammons anymore because I had done too much. I had gone too far. I had reached the horizon, then I panicked. And I wanted to turn around, but much like the looking glass, the world had closed itself. So I had to get at that moment, I had to accept the fact that this thing was gone. I was broke; I couldn’t hire someone to weave it again, what were we going to do?
And it allowed me to figure out other kinds of strategies to express what it means for Blackness to fall into abstraction in that one particular piece. And politically, I didn’t realize that until I got there, I was like, oh, there’s a way through Marx, right? Or maybe through Foucault, or [Achille] Mbembe? There’s a way in which power abstracts or extracts value from you. And labor, it does that. We all know that. But it also extracts human value from you. It extracts your roots. It makes you believe that you are a tabula rasa. And I think that, for me, that can be a dangerous place. But I’m also trying to fuss with that in the work. I’m trying to get the work to go back to almost a tabula rasa and ask, “What can we do with that?”
Rail: I remember you told a story of a viewer who was particularly frustrated with the folds and the curves in your work and was like, “Why can’t I see the entire image?” For example, a tapestry like Hood Dreams 1 (2018–20) is hung on the wall like Sam Gilliam’s work.
Anderson: Yeah, let’s get to Sam. You know, Sam is from Louisville, Kentucky, by way of Tupelo, Mississippi. When he was in Louisville, Kentucky, my grandmother used to know him—when he was a boy. I remember her saying, “Oh, Sam? That’s just Sam.” And you know, formally Sam’s work is just timeless, right? But for me, I was like, okay, what was appropriate about the work is that it only gave you access to so much. And I wanted to figure out, well, what does that do to the image, as representation proper? So I started to hang them in my studio like this for years. And I never showed them this way until I did a show four years after starting, because I was afraid of it. And then I realized, no, I’m really into this because it’s not about what you see. It’s like a Monk album. It’s not about what he plays, it’s about what he doesn’t play. You can’t see what’s what, it’s what falls into the fold. And for me, it really becomes about geometry and the colonialist grid, the modernist grid. The modernist grid has this illusion that it can control everything it sees because it fits within that structure. But the reality is that it just flattens everything. And when you flatten things, you have folds and you have creases. And things are underneath those creases. The viewer came in there and she wanted to use her modernist grid to see the whole thing. By modernist grid I mean her privilege—it was a white woman. She came in and she was like, “I can’t see any of this,” while I was like, “Because you have the wrong vision. And if you could just let yourself be open to it, you can find the right vision. But because you’re not doing that, you’re stuck. That’s your problem.”
But there are other people who come to the work and they’re like, “I love that I can’t see this,” because it creates a kind of physical calisthenics for the audience. I force them to perform like Sam does. Sam’s shit swoops out of the wall, and you got to be like, “Oh, my bad, my bad.” You feel me? And I’m trying to do that. I’m trying to also have people be surprised when they come around, and finally face this. What you’re really seeing in Hood Dreams is the ungendering of a Black woman and a Black man. What you see is the LA Revolution (1992, aka LA riots). These three white officers have physically abused two Black men. You can’t see one of them, and the woman’s face who looks at you as a Black woman. Right? It gets me to think about C. Riley Snorton who wrote this book, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, where he talks about how the medical field ungenders Black women. Black and Brown women get ungendered all the time. I very rarely see this; on January 6, say, I didn’t see a white woman ungendered this way. The way in which medical discourse can remove the gender of a Black woman as expressed in Snorton’s text, doesn’t seem to apply to the toxic masculinity enacted by white women during January 6. The patriarchal, militaristic violence did not remove their gender or privilege, the way institutional racism does. You see what I’m saying? So that thing gets revealed and it also heightens the drama and the trauma, you feel that? You feel me, so there’s that. And Sam gives me that.
Because what I think it’s doing now—and this is going to get real nerdy, this is the abstraction I’m trying to get to—it’s trying to approximate a counter grid. I think it’s trying to approximate a counter-mathematics to challenge the structure that’s controlling us right now. The shit that Mbembe talks about—all them cats be talking about, man. Rosi Braidotti be on it, right? I think that form of mathematics already exists. We need to find it. I think that form of mathematics is like African fractals. I think that form of mathematics is my grandmother or my mother making food but not having to measure. It’s like your grade don’t even matter. I just put a little of this, you feel me? Right. And I think if I could really give it a kind of Eurocentric framework, I think that mathematics is non-Euclidean.
Rail: Right. Yeah. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, she’s a theoretical physicist and has a book The Disordered Cosmos (2021) with a great chapter decolonizing Euclidean geometry and the flatness of Euclid. And she talks about how it doesn’t work on a large scale as you’re trying to navigate through space—you need curved geometries for a GPS system or flying an airplane. And there were already cultures doing this, Palikur people of the Amazon, for instance, and cultures that had curved geometrical systems to track movement of the stars. Curved geometry is really important for decolonizing that flat modernist grid, which, as you said, extends—it’s more than just a device used to map out the flat terrain of the canvas. We see the grid in colonial maps. Walter Mignolo writes about the colonial map as an instrument of power.
Anderson: Yeah, the counter-insurgent grid, the non-Euclidean grid is malleable. It has to be because those who are not in power are always displaced, and you have to be able to collapse your shit and move the fuck on and be able to fold that thing out somewhere else. And it has to, honestly, it has to fit in your pocket. If it can’t fit in your pocket, it has to fit in your mind. You feel me? That’s an interesting thing.
The modernist grid. Ooh, it gets me to think about Phillip Brian Harper’s brilliant book, Abstractionist Aesthetics (2015), where he utilizes Benjamin Franklin’s grid for temperance or whatever, like weeding out these things that he thinks are morally problematic. He was a little lascivious, he was definitely lascivious, whatever, and what he would do is have a grid with a list of things that he wanted to weed out. And if he couldn’t weed them out on that day, he would have a black dot within that grid. And Harper brilliantly reads it as the black stain that the modern is trying to weed out. If you can get rid of that lasciviousness or the need to have temperance or something, you cannot be close to the animal which is close to black. Like he’s always reading it as a stain. I think the way he introduced that in that book really got me to think about how the grid functions.
And then in Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2016) I always cite it, but Fred Moten hooked me up with fucking Baptist’s book. And it’s deep in the book, he says in relation to this one planter, not farmer but a planter, which means this motherfucker is rich. He says these planters thought in geometry, not in arithmetic. You feel me? And I was like, what the fuck does any of that mean, whoa, whoa, right? And I was like, your arithmetic is two-dimensional. It doesn’t understand space. Geometry is about taking over space. He was like the plantocracy understands how space works, because they understand geometry. But the problem with the plantocracy is that their space and their understanding of space to me is still limited because they’re still using that modernist grid. You feel me? There’s still shit they don’t even know about. Right? It’s always interesting when someone finds a tribe and, oh my god, we didn’t know, well, what they knew for maybe 3000 years already.
Rail: You’ve talked about your work in terms of love, or as a kind of altruism, as demanding a kind of altruism or demanding it from the viewer. But you, go ahead—
Anderson: It’s an availability. But I don’t know, I’m just, I mean, the man with the orange skin did a number on us for four years. And if y’all think we’re gonna get out of it soon we’re not. I’m just trying not to hate the people who hate us. But good god, it’s hard isn’t it? Woo, it’s hard.
But I will say this, I don’t know, about a month and a half ago, my partner was like, “Yo, Sunday, let’s revive your experiences of walking to the Met.” She said, “I’d love to go there with you.” So we go to the Met on a Sunday, it’s great. And I remember walking through that Met, maybe it’s about four o’clock, so we have about an hour, and go right to the African wing, and I’m just in there. And while everybody is staring at the sculptures, I’m staring at the ground, photographing all these amazing shadows and everything like the lighting. And I’d gone there for 10 plus years and never even looked at the floor. And then I realized why it was so easy for me to find value in something that nobody else was looking at—a transvaluation of something. Because I was there with someone I love. I didn’t have this fear. This veiled it—because I know it’s always there, this fear of somebody here to get me—because I had someone else who was with me.
You know, I could tell a story if you don’t mind. In therapy I realized something a few weeks ago that radicalized my space. I was like thank God, I can see it now. I can see clearly now the rain has gone. I was remembering this moment, when I was maybe 10 or something in Louisville, Kentucky. Breonna’s Louisville, to give you a context. And we were having this Mississippi Burning moment where these white 20-year-old somethings were tailgating us. My father was driving, my mother was in the passenger seat, and my brother and I were in the back, and they were tailgating us hard. My father pulled over at three in the afternoon, and he got out. He went, I was like don’t—he got in their faces and they got in his face. It was a thing. And my mother, a Black woman, she said, “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph. Come back, Joseph, get in the car.” And I remember that at 10. I didn’t think anything of it. And in therapy we were talking about it. I was like, holy shit. I said my grandmother used to do the same thing to my grandfather. He was a reverend and then a bishop. And we’re talking about the ’50s. So when he got mad at white folks, it was real. It was a different kind of time. So she called him by his position. And it was the South. If he had a problem with white folk, she would say, “Reverend, Reverend …”She would just say it until she would touch him. Or she would say, “Bishop, Bishop. Bishop, it’s okay, it’s time to go home.” And sooner or later he was snapped back into it, and he would leave. My father did the same thing. I realized and I was like, that’s fucking Black love. Black love could circumvent the irrational space my father and grandfather were going to because they were fucking triggered, and could get into their very inner core, and there essentially massage that heart and say, “Motherfucker, I need you to come home. I need you to come home.” And not just that. Right. I realized that later. My mother was able to—and she didn’t argue; she didn’t have to—my mother was able to get inside my father and say to him, “We got these two boys in this car. If you don’t get your ass back in his car, I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for them. And I need you.” That’s what love did. And it conquered the irrational fear that was triggering him. You see what I’m saying? To the extent that the other day I was in the apartment and some random shit happened with the landlord up in here, and my partner had to say, “Noel, Noel, Noel, it’s okay. We gon’ be alright.” She called me back. Right? Love can do that. Love can make you available to seeing the value of a shadow, and it can call you back when you are going to an irrational space. You feel me?
Rail: Yes, yes.
Anderson: That’s where I am in my life. We always need somebody in our lives to be able to call us home. Even in the surviving death thing. That’s what really gets me about dying. I’m excited about it. I’m not going anywhere soon—don’t worry about me. I got too many fucking ideas in this lifetime. But I’m excited about seeing those who have gone over, who are waiting for us, who are going to call us back one day.