Preach! New Works by Jeffrey Kent
By Jeffrey Kent
At the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum through March 31
Yes, that is a blindfolded preacher hanging on the walls of the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum in Fells Point, the subject of the brightly colored painting "A Beautiful Sunset That Was Mistaken for a Dawn." And if it's a little startling, that's intentional. Preach! New Works by Jeffrey Kent, the latest explosive device improvised by MICA's Exhibition Development Seminar (EDS), wants to shake you out of a comfort zone. So, yes, blindfolded preacher. And he's holding a placard topped with backward American flag; other figures hold signs defending California's Proposition 8, the 2008 state constitutional amendment that stipulated that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized." And, yes, that blindfolded preacher is wearing an Obama '08 campaign pin. And sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, that same blindfolded preacher wearing an Obama '08 campaign pin, holding a sign supporting Prop 8 is also clad in minstrel blackface-and topped with a golden, angelic halo. How does that go again: And lead us not into damnation?
Welcome to the incendiary visual world of Baltimore artist Jeffrey Kent, MICA's 2012-13 artist-in-residence and CP's "Best Visual Artist" in 2008. Kent has spent the better part of the past decade wielding his impassioned, graffiti-esque vocabulary to satirize media representations of identity. His 2008 solo show, Good Bad and Ugly, intermingled the manly representations of dudes found in superhero comics and crime and Western films with the disorienting vulnerability of dyslexia, where signs must be flipped before meaning is divined. It offered a charged peek into the artist's perspective of living with the neurological disorder. It also extrapolated on the intimately personal, bringing it into the scathingly political, making such versions of masculinity look as buffoonish as a sleeveless T-shirt. With Preach!, Kent goes further into political territory, and he dares you to flinch first: The 13 pieces here don't merely draw parallels between civil rights and LGBT rights. They're an open-palm slap upside America's head, an ear-ringing reminder not to forget whence we came.
It's all cable news' fault. Back in November 2008 when then-Sen. Barack Obama was making history, Kent was watching MSNBC's Rachel Maddow report on exit polls revealing that 70 percent of black voters favored Prop 8. "I found [that fact] to be a great inspiration, to create characters of people who I envision doing the exact opposite of what I feel as somebody who came from African-Americans who struggled for civil rights," Kent says.
Almost immediately, Kent arrived at the idea of the minstrel figure holding a sign, but the concept didn't have quite the density he desired. Soon, he remembered a painting he had made in 2002 that touched on slavery. He recalled using a "mammy" character carrying a large burden atop her head for an illustration and remembered using cotton to allude to slave labor. He started remixing these ideas into the painting and mixed-media series that matured into Preach!
Recalling a mentor's advice about the specificity of materials and their ability to infuse layers of possibility when chosen wisely, Kent wanted to use cotton in his work to reference slavery, but buying mass-produced cotton at the store felt infelicitous. And having reupholstered furniture before, he knew modern chairs didn't use cotton as stuffing.
"But I do know that chairs have been around since people's asses," Kent says. "And I figured that it must've been cotton that they used at one point."
He dove into research, learning that by 1860 a majority of the world's cotton came from the American South, harvested by nearly 4 million slaves. Some of it went to furniture manufacturers, who used it when making chairs. After about a year of searching, Kent located some chairs at an auction on the Eastern Shore that, while he can't be 100 percent certain, were likely made with cotton picked by slave hands.
Kent makes excellent use of the chairs and their cotton in Preach!, employing them in the painting "Don't Call Us Negras No Mo"; the sculptural pieces "Master Don't Wont No Black Folks Readin N Writin"; and in the spectacular "Justice, Peace and Genuine Respect for All People," for which a pair of modified chairs are balanced atop a stack of books resting on a base of old nudie mags.
The South often receives the brunt of history's disapproving backward gaze for being the site of the plantation system, but these chairs and this cotton show that everybody benefited from slave labor in some way. The global economy wasn't wired then, merely connected by sea and rail. Whether it was mining, sugar cane, or cotton, the New World-Europe-West African trade triangle powered the Industrial Revolution, and what we call modernity was built though the labor of people stolen from one land and chained to another.
Bringing the full force of that history into a discussion of gay rights isn't a glib comparison of LGBT fight and the civil rights era; it's a bold reassertion that America supposedly started with that whole all men are created equal and unalienable rights being self-evident stuff. And in that context, Preach! becomes a piercing reminder that the great American experiment that we humblebraggingly call "democracy" fails epically when we actively exclude somebody from participating.
"That's the main thing, that a person who is descended from slaves would think that you can be in America and ban rights that Americans have," Kent says. "I'm not gay, I just believe and I was taught to believe that people should be treated the same. Growing up as a young black kid in the '60s and '70s, that's the one thing you learned-you wanted to be treated the same as white people. You knew growing up that there was a difference between what white people got and what black people got. You knew that. And for you to grow up and 20 years later tell your peers and friends that they should go and vote to ban a right that other humans have-that's where I am. Were talking about humans and other humans."
For all the political foment rattling around his brain, sometimes the satirist in Kent can't help coming out. "I just can't see past the human element of this," he continues. "It'd be different if we were talking about dogs trying to marry. I'm down for that. Let's get the whole rainbow coalition together and make some signs and stop these dogs from trying to marry. You know what I'm saying?"
Jeffrey Kent delivers an artist talk Feb. 21 from 6-9 P.M at the frederick douglass-isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum. For more information, visit preachjeffreykent.com.