Reginald Sylvester II’s With the End in Mind showcases rich and affective abstract works, which both speak to and stand out among current exhibitions of Black art, writes our contributor Ifeanyi Awachie.
Reginald Sylvester II’s With the End in Mind, on view at Maximillian William, London, until 14th August 2021, showcases a new body of paintings by Sylvester that feature rich abstraction, a return to the artist’s figurative roots, and found material from within and outside of his studio. Together, the works explore themes of opacity and extraction. While some of the works seem to take shortcuts to achieve their desired effects, this exhibition is timely and striking both aesthetically and conceptually.
In the gallery, the paintings breathe, slipping into conversation with each other while standing on their own. There is ample space to encounter each. Their large scale forms a direct relationship with the viewer’s body, immersing them in varying experiences of movement and texture. The works are arrestingly, almost palpably rich, each multicolored surface replete with dancing shapes and half-shapes, snatches of light and darkness, moments of accumulation and moments of sparseness. The particular colors that the artist creates on these canvases, and his sense of color, through which he juxtaposes different hues, is impressive, and as distinctive as a signature. As the artist said in his recent conversation with writer and editor Allie Biswas, this body of work displays his experimentation with and ‘new knowledge’ of color. Tantalizingly layered, each canvas evidences intentional exploration.
Sylvester’s turn to abstraction feels apt in a moment when Black figuration seems fraught with economic and political questions, and Black artists are reclaiming the right to practice abstraction. Recently in the art market, the demand for Black figurative painting has reached a worrying peak — one need only turn to the story of artist Amoako Boafo to witness the ferocious drive to buy and sell work that renders Black bodies on canvas. In light of this, abstraction becomes one possible means for Black artists to withhold the Black figure. Indeed, recent exhibitions such as Abstraction in the Black Diaspora (October 24 — December 20, 2020) at New York City’s False Flag Gallery have featured work by Black artists who, through their abstract practices, control the terms of engagement with the Black image. These artists also demonstrate that despite not showing the Black figure, abstract work has boundless capacity to speak to Black experiences, identities, and politics.
As Abstraction in the Black Diaspora argues and artist manuel arturo abreu has posited in their lecture, “An Alternative History of Abstraction,” abstract art is inherently Black. Contrary to popular belief, which associates the origins of abstract art with Europe, it is possible to trace a lineage of what we in the West call abstract practice in African aesthetics, and in the United States, artists like Alma Thomas, Howardena Pindell, and Sam Gilliam have made significant contributions to abstraction. abreu suggests that abstraction is partly about making work ‘difficult to copy,’ which is especially poignant as one thinks about the rampant, continuous nature of Black cultural appropriation, evidenced by events as recent as this summer’s TikTok strike, led by Black content creators protesting white TikTokers’ co-option of their creative labor.
In Sylvester’s exhibition, abstraction is about the right to opacity. As writer and theorist Edouard Glissant says in The Poetics of Relation, wherein he presents the theory of opacity, ‘If we examine the process of ‘understanding’ people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgments.’ In opposition to the ‘requirement for transparency,’ the right to opacity is the right not to have one’s difference be reduced in order for one to be understood. By embracing opacity, one can express one’s difference, creating space for it without having to explain it. For this writer, embracing opacity means that elements of Blackness can be expressed without having to be explained to whiteness. This allows Blackness to thrive. As scholar Sampada Aranke says, ‘Opacity denies complete incorporation, and directs us to ways of being and knowing that are vibrant, untamed, and free-floating.’
Standing before one of Sylvester’s teeming paintings as a Black viewer, one’s mind forms connections to aspects of Black lived experience, both personal and collective, to the work of other Black artists, and to a range of Black cultural texts. Speaking about his gestural approach, Sylvester said in a public conversation with Ben Bowling, son of artist Frank Bowling, ‘A lot of the times when I’m making the work, I’m thinking about what’s going on in the world, especially with our people — the suffering, the oppression.’ The paintings are informed by what Sylvester was thinking, and perhaps also feeling, as he impressed his brush onto the canvas. Rather than translating his thoughts into easily decipherable signs, Sylvester conveys them through layers of marks, bright, engrossing reds and yellows, whose “heat” the artist says he always starts with, dark and moody greens and browns, as well as bits of string and branch.
The use of found material is significant for Sylvester, who incorporates string and sticks into this body of work as a way of thinking about a specific aspect of African American experience: that of making do with the dregs, tangible and intangible, of what the dominant group has left behind. The artist holds great admiration for how Black people in the US have been able to transform the “leftovers” into fulfilling innovations. ‘That’s probably how chitlins were made, or frog legs,’ Sylvester said in his conversation with Bowling, referencing the invention of soul food. For him, the question then becomes, ‘How can I take those leftovers and put them back into the work?’ With this inquiry at its heart, With the End in Mind enters into dialogue with works like High on the Hog, the four-part Netflix documentary helmed by food writer Stephen Satterfield, which traces the lineage of African American cuisine, showing how soul food and cooking techniques generated by Black chefs have defined what we now know as American food. That High on the Hog is one of the first platforms at its level of visibility to name the influence of African American innovation on America’s national cuisine speaks to the issue of cultural appropriation. Sylvester’s work, then, makes a powerful statement in following in the footsteps of Black cultural innovation, and in producing, through abstraction, images that are difficult to copy, undeniably compelling, and undeniably his.
The stand-out work in Sylvester’s exhibition is a piece called Two Paths, One Covenant (2020). Installed on the right side of the gallery, the piece is one of the smaller works in the show, but it is nevertheless striking. At first glance, the piece seems defined by its warm dabs of crimson, goldenrod, and rose, but upon further looking, the moments of darkness on the canvas come into focus, providing a sense of balance. Sylvester’s command of color and light is evident, and it is in this piece that his use of found material is most successful. Two sticks, positioned near the top right and bottom left of the frame, add a symmetry to the work. Seemingly suspended in space, they offer a lightness. A piece of string, tied around the lower stick, dangles just past the bottom of the canvas. For Sylvester, the use of string represents bondage, both in the sense of slavery, which relates to the theme of extraction, and of “spiritual bondage,” a nod to the Christian spiritual practice which partly informs his work. String also represents for the artist a timeline, namely, the oft-invoked 400 years since slavery, and the idea of lineage. However, hanging limply, the string in “Two Paths” appears as if it would blow in the wind rather than restrain even the spindly twig to which it is attached. However, this, for the artist, is significant; the movement of the string constitutes a “live element” of the work. The materials allow him to answer the question, “What can I use to make this more than a painting?” The title of the work suggests that the two sticks are reaching toward a middle ground, and the string can do little to impede that. From this emerges a feeling of hope.
String also appears in the works Bondage III (2020), Swing Low (2020), and 400 Yrs (2020). In Bondage III, rope crisscrosses the surface of the canvas, forming a pattern vaguely reminiscent of stained glass – a pertinent reference given Sylvester’s Christian practice. Through the polygons formed by the spaces between the stretches of rope, the sunset-colored strokes of the painting are visible. The painting seems effectively unobscured by the rope, which adorns rather than restrains the painting. Indeed, Sylvester says that he adds the rope ‘after the paintings are finished,’ but in doing so, he risks their appearing as an afterthought rather than as elements central to the work.
Similarly, in Swing Low, a few tangles of string hang from the top-left corner of the canvas. An additional piece of string hangs from a stick resting on the top-right side. Despite the artist’s stated intention to portray enthrallment, the string here seems more akin to cobwebs or other bits of material that may have inadvertently stuck to the canvas. The viewer is more enticed to contemplate Sylvester’s repeated, curved, wayward marks, made busily across the canvas, and consider what these particular colors — evoking sun, leaves, blood, smoke — might mean. In “400 Yrs,” the ropes hanging against the brooding canvas are coiled such that they resemble a series of nooses, but each coil is so delicately wound that they prettify this dark evocation. The artist could have pushed harder to drive home the notion of bondage, but perhaps his reluctance to do so emerged from a concern not to re-traumatize the Black viewer, who has a particular relationship to this experience.
Positioned near the center of the gallery and devoid of the saturated color of the paintings, a sculptural piece, entitled Last Laugh (2021), is easy to gloss over, but quietly requires a second look. Incorporating a genuine bronze slave transport, the sculpture’s materials link explicitly to the history of enslavement. The slave transport, which resembles a single, spiky handcuff, but which could have enclosed other parts of the body, sits atop the sculpture, uncomfortably piercing the air. Car parts, sourced from a metal yard near Sylvester’s studio and forming the rectangular middle of the piece, help to symbolize the enduring legacy and, to borrow from scholar Frank B. Wilderson, the ‘structuring relation‘ of slavery. As Sylvester says, the car part ‘activates a vehicle [much like] slavery activated the way [the US] is run.’ Rope features prominently in this piece, connecting it to the “bondage” paintings, and here, a tangible sense of being bound is more successfully conveyed — wound repeatedly around its center, the rope shackles the sculpture. At its wide base, gray blocks, resemblant of bricks, form several stacks. There is something eerily bodily about the sculpture, and it renders a sense of weight, of gravity, of labor. Here as in the paintings, the viewer must remember the artist’s right to opacity; his intended meaning may not be clear-cut, but we must sit with either what the work evokes for us or our knowledge that we do not understand.
The single figurative piece in the show, Duality of a Woman (2021), attracts the viewer with the conventional beauty of its female subject, rendered skillfully by the artist. The Black woman in the painting sports a 1960s updo and a black garment, ostensibly formal with its low neckline, that affords the piece a classic-ness. It seems significant that Sylvester’s show opened in the wake of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Fly in League with the Night (December 2, 2020 – February 26, 2023) at Tate Britain, the artist’s first solo retrospective and a show that generated abundant excitement in my Black feminist art enthusiast circles. In Yiadom-Boakye’s show, stately, contemplative, and vivacious Black figures inhabit quiet interior spaces and expansive natural landscapes. The women figures especially express a self-possession that is gratifying and affirming to witness as a Black woman viewer in a world shaped by misogynoir. Sylvester’s “Woman” offers an anchor among his abstractions, an image, legible in a particular way, that provides us with clear clues as to his project. That he pairs the figure with what appears to be a scrambled version of the portrait, which he describes as a representation of the woman’s soul, drives home the idea of opacity as legitimate and necessary – in rendering the Black woman both figuratively and abstractly, the artist conceals a part of her from view and thus protects that part. Yet the choice to represent a Black female figure in an otherwise abstract body of work raises questions; is the Black female body not deserving of the same protections that abstraction affords? What are the politics behind this choice? Can the Black woman figure be consumed outside of these politics?
Despite these questions and the work’s few shortcomings, With the End in Mind is a particularly affecting show that both speaks to and stands out among current exhibitions of Black art. It is hard not to think of Frank Bowling’s London / New York (May 21 – July 31, 2021) at Hauser & Wirth, alongside Sylvester’s exhibition. Bowling’s paintings – seamless, absorbing works that evoke, through stripes of color and found material, national flags, seas, and locales personally significant to the artist – achieve an effect to which Sylvester also aspires: a strong claim to place and to people(s). In fact, Maximilian William included the work of both Sylvester and Bowling in the group exhibition Modal Painting (April 12 – May 2, 2021). Sylvester said of Frank Bowling’s use of found materials that they appear ‘like something you find in the crevice of the world.’ Similarly, Sylvester’s works hover in the space between painting and object, between figure and symbol, striving toward, in his words, a sense of magnificence.
Reginald Sylvester II: With the End in Mind is showing at the Maximillian William, London, until 14 August 2021. Click here for more information.
Feature image: a close up of Reginald Sylvester II’s Two Paths, One Covenant, 2020 Acrylic, sticks, and string on canvas 60 x 72 in (152.4 x 182.88 cm) (RS-20-023) © 2020 Reginald Sylvester II. Image courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London. Photography: Jack Hems.