Paul Rucker's provocative 'REWIND' at the Creative Alliance links modern-day oppression and violence with US history

City Paper

When my white grandmother was a child growing up in Highlandtown, not far from the Creative Alliance, which is currently exhibiting Paul Rucker’s “REWIND,” a devastating show about violence, race, and power in the United States, she would go to a nearby corner store with all of her white friends after school and they’d order, from a white shop owner, chocolate-covered gummy bears which they would all colloquially call “little nigger babies.” She told me this a few years ago, horrified though a bit entertained in a way that old white folks tend to be about race because they see that things have changed and believe that’s proper (read: “enough”) progress.

If I told this to visual artist and musician Paul Rucker who is, as Creative Alliance says on its website, “on hand to facilitate discussion with visitors,” it’s not hard to imagine these nefarious sweets becoming a new piece in “REWIND,” which picks up new elements as it continues.

See, so much of “REWIND,” on view until March 7, locates the horror of American power structures in the seemingly mundane: department store mannequins sport KKK robes; throw towels are adorned with the images of lynchings from postcards; cellos and violin cases become memorials for victims of hate. Even the first floor of the Creative Alliance itself is imbued with menace. It has been painted an abrasive technicolor red. And running along the walls is ‘Final Words,’ featuring the last thing victims of police violence said before their death, including “I can’t breathe,” garbled out by Eric Garner, 43, choked to death by the NYPD on July 17, 2014, and “Mom I’m going to college,” from Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 22-year-old shot 41 times by the NYPD in 1999.

Those who remember the Diallo shooting will recall how often, for good reason, “41 shots” was invoked—hell, Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it—though perhaps that had the eventual effect of turning the murder into an abstraction. But in Rucker’s ‘Excessive Use’ series, closely tied to ‘Final Words,’ pieces of paper hang, like they’re at a gun range, shot up with bullets, renewing the horror of murders like the Diallo shooting.  Staring at the result of dozens of bullet holes blasted through a flimsy piece of paper makes that number tangible. It also forces us to wonder why we highlight certain murders over others and suggests that perhaps our focus on amount is wrong, because it is just as harrowing to look at another piece of paper in ‘Excessive Use’ with just one hole in it (‘January 1, 2009 Oakland California,’ for Oscar Grant, unarmed, shot once in the back and killed on that date by transit police). One bullet fired into a body is also “excessive,” isn’t it?

Ominously, in the middle of the red floor, next to ‘Excessive Use,’ is ‘Storm In The Time of Shelter,’ featuring mannequins of varying sizes, from adults to teens to children, wearing Ku Klux Klan robes made of red, white, and blue fabric and camouflage; a related series upstairs, ‘Birth of a Nation Project,’ features Klan robes in more elaborate textiles, including sparkly patterns that look like something you might pick up for a tween’s blanket at Jo-Ann Fabrics. Giving these KKK robes a redesign doesn’t necessarily mock the Klan, which might be the initial interpretation of this series. Rather, it suggests that the white supremacy of the KKK is fashionable to this day; it’s just that these days, it has received a sleek, savvy rebranding.

Along with ‘Excessive Use’ and ‘Storm In the Time of Shelter,’ the most immediate piece in “REWIND” is ‘One Thing Less To Worry About,’ a throw towel featuring the image of an ominous black void wearing a hoodie with a target on it and the black void’s hands holding Arizona iced tea and Skittles (what unarmed teen Trayvon Martin went to get at a convenience store when he was shot by security guard George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida). ‘One Thing Less To Worry About’ is striking and it’s wisely being used to promote “REWIND” because it ties directly to the nascent protest movement and grabs your attention, but it is also the exhibit’s most uncharacteristically simple piece. The rest of the work is subtler, and demands contemplation and some research (there is an accompanying newspaper in the gallery which is a guide to “REWIND,” providing historical facts and context for the pieces).

The oblique Soundless Series, titled, like most of the pieces in “REWIND,” with a date and location only, continues onto the second floor in Rucker’s studio and uses recreations of the face of a cello with its curved sides and expressive, eyelike F-holes to represent the victims upon whom acts of hate were committed  (Rucker is a cellist and some of his work soundtracks the video pieces in “REWIND”). A burned and corrugated cello front titled ‘May 15, 1916 Waco, Texas’ is named after the date Jesse Washington was castrated and then burned alive for two hours. Another Soundless piece, ‘Aug 28, 1955, Money, Mississippi Tallahatchie River’ is made up of two wooden boxes, each with half the face of a cello on them. The boxes are programmed to whistle every 67 minutes, which is the amount of time it took for an all-white jury to acquit two men who brutally murdered Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who allegedly whistled at a white woman and subsequently had his eyes gouged out and his face beaten beyond recognition, nearly splitting his head in half.

On the loft in Rucker’s studio is ‘Little Known,’ an installation using Rucker’s cello music, along with video and sculpture. About three-dozen violin cases, each with a pressed American flag draped across them, rest on a slightly elevated platform. Projected on the wall behind the cases is video footage of clouds, accompanied by a haunting string quartet piece titled ‘The Middle Passage,’ written by Rucker and performed by a string quartet. The violin cases look like small coffins for children and invoke the image (banned from being shown on televisions or in newspapers) of dead soldiers coming back from war. Indeed, slave children are fallen soldiers in a war, drafted into an American conflict that started in 1619 and doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. Still, Rucker offers a glimpse—arguably the show’s only glimpse—of utopia with ‘Little Known’: The footage of clouds suggests these children are finally returning home, which might be Africa (where they or their parents or their parents’ parents were kidnapped) or maybe somewhere else, like heaven or some more abstract afterlife.

“REWIND” also includes pieces considering the lives of nonblack and female victims as well: ‘October 12, 1998 Laramie, Wyoming’ is a Soundless Series piece named for Matthew Shepard, a gay white college student tortured and killed; nearby is a throw rug featuring the image of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched on Aug. 17, 1915 in Marietta, Georgia; another throw features the image of Laura and L.D. Nelson, both hanged from a bridge on May 25, 1911 in Okfuskee, Oklahoma. These inclusions are not token; they are assertions that American-bred terror and torture does not stop at race—it’s just that race is the prevailing issue in this country and the surface which oppression most frequently uses to sharpen itself. Nevertheless, these nods to Jewish, queer, and female victims of violence are intersectional nods—not to mention more of a sensitive response to clueless “#alllivesmatter” rhetoric that has popped up post-Ferguson than that sentiment deserves.

Really though, “REWIND” is one massive piece. Elements of a series or a whole series are often referenced somewhere else: ‘Little Known’ answers the four, more education-oriented videos on the first floor (‘DENSITY,’ ‘PROLIFERATION,’ ‘Stories From the Trees Pt. 1,’ and ‘Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe’), all set to less-contemplative Rucker compositions tinged with hip-hop percussion and effect-laden cello that recalls the psychedelia of Jimi Hendrix. ‘The Middle Passage,’ the name of the composition that scores ‘Little Known,’ is also the name of a piece that illustrates Rucker’s composition on a musical staff (that piece is the same red as the Creative Alliance floor). There is a Soundless Series piece for Trayvon Martin upstairs, which ties to the throw towel downstairs, ‘One Thing Less To Worry About.’ Lynching imagery of the throws returns in the video ‘Stories From the Trees Pt. 1,’ which animates a lynching postcard. A display case downstairs contains racist historical artifacts, including a poster for “The Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 film that indeed did make the KKK fashionable again and from which Rucker took the name for his playful, multicolored Klan robes series upstairs.

There is a frightening, necessary cohesion to “REWIND” which mimics the overarching theme of the exhibit: If you look close enough, everything is connected, oppression and violence inextricably tied to every detail of the founding of the United States. 

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