this the country

black figuration, nicolas de staël, and some vibes

Caveman, Charlie Lucas

Hello friends—

On Tuesday, when I saw that the verdict in the Chauvin case was being handed own, I deactivated my Twitter and turned off my phone. I sat on the porch and drank coffee and read Fanon. I tried to think about what it would mean to live in a world where George Floyd’s killer walked free. And then I tried to imagine a world where George Floyd’s killer was held accountable for killing a human being. It’s almost a cliché at this point, but I’ll say it just to be clear. It was harder and stranger to imagine Chauvin being convicted than it was to imagine him not being convicted. The very nature and structure of laws in America is predicated on the submission and subjugation of black people. I’m not sure I’ve ever considered that the law would protect me from anything. In my family, we called the police the law. The law out there meaning that cops were perched at a speed trap just up the road. Or she called the law on him. The police and the law were never separate. The law was the police and the police were arbitrary and dangerous.

I decided that I didn’t want to be on Twitter when the news hit even if Chauvin was convicted because Twitter has a way of becoming unbearable in such collective moments. Unbearable because people behave exactly as you know they will and there is something really annoying about having your expectations confirmed. And if it was bad, I would feel sick, and I would need to lie down. So I just got off and read and waited.

And then I heard that he was convicted and I thought about the last time I laid in my parents’ bed in Alabama. It was the night of the Zimmerman verdict. It was hot in the trailer even when the sun had gone down. Earlier, the verdict had been read, and I was reloading the web page as the protests unfolded. Outside, they were on the porch, smoking and drinking and talking about what was going to happen in Florida. I was packed and ready to leave Alabama for the Midwest. I was waiting to see what would happen too. I felt helpless and small and mad. I heard my aunt’s boyfriend say This the country, nigga, who marching? You Martin Luther Kang? Watch out now, here come ol Kunta Kinte looking ass nigga. Ol Benjamin Banneker looking ass nigga.

It was true. Nobody was marching anywhere. The doors were propped open to let out the heat from cooking dinner. The men were laughing on the porch. Fred Sanford was on in the living room. Then someone put on fast blues. I remember my dad came into the room, looked at me stretched out in front of the fan. He shook his head and sighed and said, “Boy, boy, boy. That poor boy.” My dad sat on the bed. He tried to talk to me. I didn’t say anything because he was drunk and always trying to have big conversations with me when he was drunk. My mom was out on the porch drinking from a big cup of ice. Later that month, she’d start falling. We didn’t know about the cancer then. But it was already too late. When she started to fall, I just thought she was clumsy and drunk too. But that night, in my parents’ room, I was refreshing the web page, trying to see about the protests. What would happen. My chest felt tight. My stomach hurt. There were flies in the room. The fan was dusty and kept spitting out gray clumps of lint. Outside, my mom’s laugh rose up over the trees. My dad got off the bed. He walked down the hall, and kind of sang to himself “That poor boy, his poor mama.”

I found out about the Chauvin verdict and the death of Ma’Khia Bryant at the same time. I had reactivated my twitter when a friend told me about the conviction, and I logged on to check in with some friends there. The page loaded and presented the two stories to me simultaneously, and I thought, Get the fuck out of here. Get me the fuck out of here. The police in Columbus, Ohio had just killed a sixteen year old girl who had called them, according to reports, for help because people were assaulting her. I heard it in my grandma’s voice, as I often do, She called the law and they killed that child. It’s the kind of macabre but ultimately commonplace horror that streaks through this country so fast and with such frequency that at a distance, they almost resemble natural phenomena but when viewed up close, the awfulness of it burns your eyes right out of your fucking head. She was sixteen. Sixteen. How do you kill a child?

I think sometimes, these matters get abstracted in the news in an attempt to appeal to reason and logos. There are much data presented. Many facts. There are charts, diagrams. Percentages. But when you look at the situation, it boils down to: the police shot and killed a sixteen-year-old girl who had called them for assistance because she was being attacked. It’s too awful to contemplate. That she was so young is particularly heinous. That we feel foolish for expecting justice and consequences is also particularly heinous. But it is also important to remember that the police should not be shooting anyone to death. The police also should probably not exist. A human being who was here just three days ago is no longer here because she was murdered by the state. I mean, I am not naïve, but I feel the older I get, the more it baffles my mind that a not small part of our country has accepted this as part of some kind of social contract. That occasionally, a person going about the ordinary course of their life will just be killed by the state. Like. What?

It made me think of the post-war European painters who were trying to figure out how to present a world that had become, in the wake of the violence and the horrors of two world wars, strange and alien to them. What do you do with a world full of inherited forms when those forms are broken in the transfer. I mean, I’ve heard it said a lot that postmodernism and abstraction were a response to a Godless world, to the splintering of reality, the breaking down of form. That in the wake of all the atrocities and privation and horrors of war and the suffering of man’s inhumanity to man, nothing seemed important or real or that old hierarchies made no more sense. And I think I always approached that stuff with a very protestant skepticism. It always seemed suspicious to me. Like wearing jeans in church. What do you mean you are just now privy to the sufferings of the human soul? You wore slacks during slavery, but somehow WWII has you embracing the chaos of existence? Not that one can compare atrocities, but I always did feel a little suspect re: post-modernism as the readout of the white psyche under the duress of world-ending war.

I mean, in some sense, black people in America have always had to try to find out new modes of meaning and figuration because the tools we inherited were broken from the very outset. The history of art-making in America by black people has been, from the very outset, a kind of weird modernist exercise. We joke about CP time, but like, I do think Black Temporality is different in America! The abstract expressionists in America and their European forebears were grappling with new concepts of figuration and how to capture experience itself, how to make one’s singular experience of time and space legible, and, to be honest, this feels like a deeply black site of artistic inquiry. And, I get it, that seems silly, I guess, maybe. But the more I think about it, the more I understand it. Though, yes, it does seem silly to sit down and try to write about art and theory and the concept of beauty when we live in a country whose institutions have just kind of accepted that de temps en temps, our state will just up and kill a child. I mean what.

The fact that such a thing is possible is really a compound fact made up of several more insidious facts running all the way back to the idea that it was permissible for white people to steal the land of indigenous people and then import people from their home countries and enslave them for several centuries. Beckett himself could not contrive a stranger, weirder, more gruesome concept than the facts of this nation’s founding. It’s enough to drive you mad. To hold in your mind the raw facts of what it is to live in America today, what it is to be black in America today. It’s just. Anyway, I looked at paintings last night.

Composition, 1946 Nicolas De Stael

The first Nicolas de Staël painting I saw online was Composition, 1946. At first glance, there is something almost unbearable about the painting. The flashes of white and the fang-like gouges that pierce at the upper left and trail away toward the lower right. But then, just as the eye grows accustomed to the tension running through the painting, the image breaks up into creamy blues and damp greens. You see, suddenly amid the harrowing chaos, the cool, steely order running beneath it all. The painting comes to resemble, then, a cityscape almost. Here, benches, here parks, here ponds, a river, homes, lights, lives going on undisturbed. Here, the moon. Here, flashes of mortar in the sky. Here, war, here the atomizing of matter, here death, the eternal sleep of the soul. You see then how the backdrop is made up of so many layers of black and green and blue, you see how it starts to bleed forward. How the gouges become rail tracks, now canals, full of black, which is either water or night itself. You see then the angry pulsing red at the lower right, hell or caution or both. And if you turn it on its side, it looks like a pig or a wolf. There’s even a mouth.

The first time I saw the painting, it felt very impressive. Forceful. Tense. I would later come to recognize this as an effect of the impasto, the thickness of the layers of paint, more sculpture than painting really. What made the two diagonal streaks so special was how they had to cut through the paint itself. I could feel that something had been displaced. There is such weight to the painting. But part of that has to do with the fact that you can see the strokes. If you zoom in, you can see every thought, hesitation, gesture. What part of it he left for you to see anyway. A painting, like a story or an essay or a movie is an exercise in redaction. You leave enough behind to give the sense of naturalness. But in fact, it’s all constructed. And if the thing itself is not constructed, then the context into which it is embedded is constructed.

De Staël’s Composition paintings are like watching someone tear themselves up in order to escape themselves. He painted many of those Composition works when he was trying to figure out what kind of artist he wanted to be. He was trying on techniques and trying out aesthetics. He was working long hours and neglecting himself, trying to crack something open, looking for a language, a visual vocabulary to express the inexpressible. Trying to represent the simultaneity of experience. The wholeness of it. The part of experience that was personal but also the part of it that was universal. It’s a tension that Northrop Frye, borrowing from Blake describes as an apocalypse:

By an apocalypse I mean primarily the imaginative conception of the whole of nature as the content of an infinite and eternal living body which, if not human, is closer to being human than to being inanimate.

 There is something particularly apocalyptic about the painting and its impulses. The way it seems to draw, as in Zeus in the Iliad, the whole great chain of being up inside of itself, and therein, everything dwells amid everything else.

Marathon, 1948, Nicolas de Stael

There’s another painting I think of often. Marathon. On a kind of slate background, a series of segments. Blue, gray, red, white, black, green. Streaks and segments placed over each other, arrayed as if around a central stem of some sort. There’s something radial about it, something of the sunset or the sunrise. All these discrete segments, spilling across each other. A painting that you can almost hear. It sounds like rush hour. It sounds like a busy summer afternoon in New York. It sounds like the ambulance running by on its way to someone’s catastrophe. It sounds like protest. It sounds like people shoving at each other to get to the exit. It sounds like life’s many urgencies. That patter of voices that rises in pitch until it is a scream. Or else, it is a chant, which is really just organized screaming. Rhythmic screaming. I like Marathon because its name sounds like what it is. Even though I read in the catalog that the name for the painting comes from the grinding, never-ending nature of de Staël’s quest for a unique vision and outlook. It came from his constantly putting himself on the rack and cranking the gears until his insides came out. But still, the name has a kind of whimsy, no?

I guess I think of that painting lately the way I don’t think of the other de Staël paintings because last summer, there were all of the protests against police violence and systemic racism. There was much collective spirit. People taking to their streets, their squares, their neighborhoods, people letting their voices be heard. Donating money. Donating time. Food. Resources. For bail. For rent. For groceries. For school supplies. For security. For housing. It seemed like everywhere you looked, there were causes, bobbing up out of the great sea of America’s inequities. For a time, people felt good about doing good. And then they moved on. And some people got mad about the moving on. And some people said that moving on was what people did and we’d have to just, I don’t know, deal with that. And then someone else died. And we came back. And then someone else died. And fewer of us came back. And then on. And on. And on.

Another way to view de Staël’s painting is a marathon of atrocities. Not even different atrocities. You could have a marathon of mass shootings. You could have a marathon of racist violence. You could have a marathon of racist mass shootings. You could have a marathon of gendered violence. You could have a marathon of racialized gendered violence. You could have a marathon of legislation specifically targeting underaged trans children. You could have a marathon of legislation specifically targeting black voters. And you wouldn’t even have to come up with a different name for it, because you could just call it life. Northrop Frye calls it demonic:

The demonic human world is a society held together by a kind of molecular tension of egos, a loyalty to the group or the leader which diminishes the individual, or, at best, contrasts his pleasure with his duty or honor. Such a society is an endless source of tragic dilemmas like those of Hamlet and Antigone. In the apocalyptic con­ception of human life we found three kinds of fulfillment: indi­vidual, sexual, and social. In the sinister human world one individual pole is the tyrant-leader, inscrutable, ruthless, melancholy, and with an insatiable will, who commands loyalty only if he is ego­ centric enough to represent the collective ego of his followers. The other pole is represented by the pharmakos or sacrificed victim, who has to be killed to strengthen the others.

It captures perfectly the unrelenting, iterative element of America’s dystopia. It does feel demonic. It does feel like the exact opposite of the apocalypse. A kind of anti-apocalypse. We are together, yes, but we are in hell.

I think about the three thin red lines in de Staël’s Marathon. One runs down the center, at an angle. One appears on the left of that line, short, thicker, and another on the right, running more or less as long as the center line, though it does a magic trick toward the bottom, its color going from red to slate as it runs beneath a streak. There is another red line in the painting. You see it running from left to right, perpendicular to the other lines, peeking like the hem of a gown. It’s a funny little set of lines. Totally out of the vernacular of the painting. For one thing, they’re so skinny. One can’t but think of the string of fate. That fragile little thing that keeps you on this side or that of death. But then, on closer inspection, you realize, oh they aren’t lines. I mean, they are lines. But they are part of larger structures which have been painted over so many times in so many ways that all that remains are these brilliant red flashes. And I can’t decide if that makes them seem more or less precious, more or less dear. As though they were the vestiges of some first, true thought. Before all the other stuff crowded in.

But then I thought, well, the other stuff is kind of the point, no? I don’t mean in the way that the white guys who read novellas in translation and enjoy postmodernist writing mean it. When they say the other stuff is the point, what they usually mean is that they enjoy the feeling of brushing their fingers across arcane and endlessly ornate figures of speech. They love the electric thrill of trying to tease out some particularly knotty word puzzle or the like. They mean the whole firmament of prose as impasto, the sculptural element of the text regardless of what the text has to say, is the important stuff. That’s what they mean. And they aren’t wrong. I mean, I love a dense, arcane text as much as the next person. But that isn’t what I mean.

What I mean is that when you think about the thin red lines, you are thinking about art. And when you lose the thin red lines because all of the stuff crowds in on you, the other stuff, the crowding stuff, the unruly mass that swirls and tessellates around Marathon, that stuff is your people. Your people dying. Your mother’s laugh in the trees that last summer. Your father’s cigarettes. His trying to talk to you. Your uncles out in the yard, laughing about the Lakers. The buzz of the flies. The whir of the dusty fan. Your mother’s shed teeth tucked into the corner of her dresser. The smell of tobacco. The smell of beer. Your grandma’s cornbread. Your grandpa’s stew. The dart of the deer through the low shrubs. The smell of the Irish Spring soap from the Dollar General. Your aunt needing you to boost her up into the big truck she drove that was way too big for her. The heat from the hood of the car you sat on with your cousins, just talking. Your brother showing you how to throw the perfect spiral. How to catch it. Those ashy elbow boys from up the street who cut your cousin under the eye with a rock, who you ambushed later that week and beat on their backs until they cried for their mamas. Your other cousin slicing your back open with a car tag flung like a frisbee. All that blood sticking to your new shirt. Your mother yelling about that. You lose sight of the thin red lines. Because all that other stuff gets in the way. It crowds in. And you forget to think about art. Just art. Pure art. Art for art’s sake. You lose hold of it. And all the other stuff washes over you. You wonder. Is there enough room in me for all of it? Where does it all fit? Where does it all go?

I think when I was younger, I wanted to know how it was all supposed to fit together. It was supposed to be the thin red lines on one side, the other stuff on the other side. It was supposed to be art and the other stuff, life, maybe. But I was not a very smart young person. I was not very smart for a long time, and I thought you could think about art in this silly, reductive way. It’s not even that the thin red lines and the slate smears are separate. They are all the point. It’s all in there together. What changes is your point of reference. Marathon, in a way, is a perfect painting about trying to be a black artist. A handy visual metaphor for the endlessly collapsing context of trying to create amid the shifting mass of life particularly as one is constrained by an overcultural gaze.

I think I always wanted to be an artist. My brother was a painter. He made this folksy art. I called it African because his dad (who was not my dad) had learned to paint in Africa and said that he was making art about black people. My brother’s dad made these tin sculptures or painted these curiously abstract figures on primary backgrounds. His work had a lot voltage, a lot of tension running through it. Black figuration seemed to excite him to some other energy level. My brother’s paintings were similar, as though an aesthetic could be genetic. My brother loved red and yellow and black most. He also had a thick impasto style. Heavy handed, our mom would say. So heavy handed. I think I made myself a minimalist in response to that. All that excess. I wanted to be clean. Sharp. Light. As delicate as a pencil drawing on a white wall, barely there. But my brother was a painter, so I became a scientist because, well, I was never going to be as good as him. He was a genius. Well, he’s not dead. We just don’t talk anymore. He’s still a genius. He lives in Georgia now. He’s married. He does this thing with cars now. He puts them up on big wheels. He’s always been a mechanical genius, too. All things spatial and mechanical fall under his domain. One time, he built a club house in the woods that had windows and furniture and electricity. He ran a series of extension cords out of great grandma’s house and almost burned it all down. But for a while there, it was impressive. That wooden little house in the woods with a light bulb. Now, he does suspension work for cars and shows cars too. I recently looked through his Facebook and saw that he’d broken his hands and arms over the last couple years. Gruesome injuries. Lots of pics of his busted up hands black with oil and grease. It took me back to when we were younger and I’d help him with cars and he’d get his hands caked in grease and filth, and I’d get yelled at because the tub had a ring in it even though he was the one who left it behind. He is a magician. What he can do with tension. Space. He used to rig up endlessly complicated stereo systems in cars for his friends. One time, he installed TV in his car. I’d never seen that before. When I was little, he made a boat for me out of toy car motor and some plastic he’d painted. It went around and around the tub, and when it died, he just made me another one. I think about the sweaty, lanky teenager that he was, so brilliant. I thought he was dumb and smelled. I didn’t think he was very smart. But when I think of it now, I can only marvel at his talent. His ingenuity. I wish I knew then what I know now, but then I wouldn’t have been his annoying little brother, and he probably wouldn’t have made me a boat.

He kept painting these faces. With holes in them. Faces with so many holes. Not eyes or mouths. Just holes. I wish that we had the kind of relationship where I could call him and ask him what the holes meant. We shared a room for a long time. You’d think you’d get to know someone well enough to be able to figure out what they meant by putting all those holes in a face. But who keeps secrets better than siblings who share a room?

One time, he let me borrow his shoes. And when I took them off at home that night, just carelessly pulling my feet up and out, the sole came with it, and taped underneath the sole was a pack of condoms. They fell out right there on the floor in front of our mom. She looked at me. I was twelve and had big feet at the time. She looked at me and said, “Do you even know what that is?”

I did not know what they were. I mean, I knew what they were. But I didn’t know what they were for. I had seen them in various places outside mostly, used. Disgusting looking. And I said, no. She said put them back. So I rolled them up and tucked them into the shoe as best I could, and then she said, “Them your brother’s?” And I said yes, I guess they were. And she said, “Doggish. Chile, that boy is so doggish.” She asked him about the shoes and the condoms when he got home, and he said that he had forgotten to take the condoms out. And when he came into our room, he laughed and said, “You want em?” and I said, “The things?” and he said, “No, boy, the shoes.” And I said, “Oh, yeah. If you don’t.” And he said, “Ain’t what I want. It’s what you want.” He gave me the shoes: blue Nikes. Really nice. I would later wear them to death playing tennis in them.

He asked me as we were falling asleep, him on the floor, me on the bed, if I knew what the things were. And I said, experimentally, “Condoms?” And he said, “You know what they for?” And I said, “Uh. Yes.” But mostly, I thought he meant, sex, like, in the abstract way. He said “It keep your thang from falling off. You want em?” And I said “No.” And he said “You got a girlfriend?” And I said, “I’m twelve.” And he said, “So?” Then he laughed and went to bed and I stayed up thinking about that. How he didn’t have any idea who I was or what I liked or what I thought about, but he had offered me something. I think up to that point, I’d spent a lot of time wondering about him, trying to figure him out. It hadn’t occurred to me that he would wonder about me too. That he would test out his theories with questions like “You want em?” and “So?” just to see what I would do.

My brother and I spent a lot of time at each other’s throats. We spent a lot of time bickering and fighting and telling on each other. But he also defended me a lot. He once beat up a guy who had looked at me weird while we were pushing our bikes, and I was crying because I was afraid I would get bitten by a dog. And one of our vague neighborhood “cousins” called me a sissy and my brother dropped his bike and then dropped the kid. He kept saying “That’s my brother! That’s my brother!” But usually, he was the first to call me whiney and a baby and said I cry too much. He’d scare me and then pinch me to keep me from crying when I was scared, and he’d ask me to get him water from the refrigerator even though I was scared of the dark. One time, our mom asked me point blank if he was having sex with this woman who was too grown for him and whose boyfriend had just gotten out of prison. And I said no. But then, one night, when my mom was at work, and I was at home with my dad, I saw a man on our porch. And I said, There’s a man out there! And my dad looked and said, where, where, you know I can’t see good, Brandon, and I said, he’s right there. But when I looked he was gone, and had moved across our yard to stand under the big pole light at the edge of the woods. He stood there peering at our house all night. And then my mom asked my brother if he was fucking Wanda, and if he was, he needed to stop, and besides, he was too damn young for all that. He was just sixteen, he better stop, or she’d have Wanda put under the jail.

And my brother packed up his things and left and said that he wasn’t doing anything she hadn’t done, and she said if he didn’t stop talking to her like he was grown, she was going to break his motherfucking neck. I sat on the bed. My brother packed up his stuff. All his painting supplies. He rolled his drawings up and stuck them in a tube. And he asked me if I had told on him. And I said, no, but there was a man watching our house all night. And he said, don’t be such a scaredy cat, ain’t nobody out there. I’d like to call my brother and ask if he left that time because he was mad at our mom or if he was trying to draw the man away.

Years later, that woman was found out to have been sleeping with her own nephew who was my brother’s age. And the man threw a cinderblock through their trailer window while the two of them were in there buck naked. He then took to driving up and down the road looking for the nephew. We knew that he was looking for the nephew because he stopped to ask us if we had seen him. And we said, no. He looked at me directly and said, “Don’t I know you?” He leaned out the car window, and I said, “No, I don’t think so.” And he said, “Ain’t you used to play with my daughter and them?” And I said, “Yeah, Kickball.” And he said, “You was always good. Nice boy.”

My grandpa, later, recalling the story to my grandma and uncles, almost spat in rage. “Nice? What them folks know about nice? Fuck they own kin. Talking like they high and mighty. I oughtta shot his nuts off. Talking about nice. I can’t stand these country ass niggas.”

And I laughed. Because my grandpa was always talking about shooting the nuts off men he hated. Especially ones who thought they were better than us. And everyone in that particular family thought they were better than us, and did, in fact, have a reputation for incest. By then, I knew what condoms were for. I knew I’d never have a girlfriend. But my brother wasn’t around for me to tell him about it. He was at Job Corps in Georgia by then, and I like to think that our mom had sent him there to keep him safe from Wanda’s husband who still didn’t like him and had a gun then, but I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s more like she sent him away because she didn’t like him very much and they didn’t understand each other, or understood each other too well. And I’d like to be able to sit them down and ask which it was. But my mom died and my brother and I don’t talk, and here I am just thinking about the red lines in Nicolas de Staël’s painting, trying to figure out if it is possible to be black and to think of art when your people are dying simply because they are alive.

Larry and Jean, Larry G. Taylor

I want to call and ask my brother about the red lines. When my mom was sick, really sick, but before we knew about the cancer, I sent him some money to take her to the doctor. It was my whole monthly grad school stipend minus rent and fifty bucks for groceries. But I sent it. And he drove up from Georgia to take her to the doctor in Birmingham. For the scan that would eventually reveal the cancer. When they were waiting in reception, he took a picture of them and sent it to me. She looks annoyed but pleased by his proximity. He looks, well, how he always looks. A little playful, up to something, what, who knows. He sent it to me. I recognized her shirt immediately. It was one of the big baggy shirts she inherited from one of my cousins who had lost a lot of weight recently. She preferred men’s shirts, men’s clothing in general. There was a red line on it, running across her chest. I had forgotten about that red line until I looked up the photograph again. And there it was, haunting me again. Another red line.

The truth is that when I think of de Staël’s Composition paintings from the late forties and early fifties, part of what makes my chest hurt is that they remind me of my brother’s paintings. The ones he left leaning in a corner of house when he left that first time, right before we moved. My mom threw them out. And I thought, that’s such a shame. I don’t know why it surprised me when she did the same thing to me when I left for college. She burned all my things in a pile outside. My grandpa told me about it when I came home in the spring.