“Adam Pendleton: Our Ideas”
through November 9, 2018 ***NOW CLOSED***
I came to know of Adam Pendleton’s work through his exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2015. He showed a group of paintings and vinyl works that conveyed the phrase BLACK LIVES MATTER, and flying at the pavilion’s entrance was a flag bearing the words BLACK LIVES. It caught my attention, seeing an artist bring this language into his work, putting it in a context distinct from the media and internet outlets in which it had initially evolved.
Language is a critical component of Pendleton’s work. He lifts text from the essays, poems and films that make up his extensive personal archive, and places them in his paintings and collages as legible words or passages, or as jumbled letters. As with the visual sources that he uses, some of which appear repeatedly in his compositions—photocopies of masks and artifacts, or photographs documenting decolonization, for example—Pendleton’s appropriations of existing language offer new possibilities for interpreting histories. His work draws attention not only to how ideas come into being in the world, but also to how they resonate differently at different times.
The importance of words is immediately noticeable in the artist’s current exhibition at Pace. A series of silkscreen paintings, “Untitled (A Victim of American Democracy),” 2018, paraphrases a line from Malcolm X’s 1964 speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” In these works, the letter “A” stands out against more abstract forms. On the opposite side of the gallery is a floor-to-ceiling vinyl text, Midnight (A Victim of American Democracy), 2017, that takes over the entire wall with its suggestion of a statement.
Conceptual foundations aside, Pendleton’s art is thrilling for its graphic immediacy. The artist works almost solely in black and white and has developed a visual lexicon completely recognizable as his own. Depending on the piece, the letters are blurred, curved, informal or precise, but they are always uppercase. In the large grids of individual silkscreen-ink-on-Mylar works, Our Ideas #2 and Our Ideas #3 (both 2018), displayed on neighboring walls, Pendleton’s hand-drawn signifiers—a range of thick black marker lines, cartoonish zigzags, and geometric shapes—merge with his stockpile of found images. His pictures can simultaneously give the impression of density and sparseness.
The artist’s unique aesthetic is reached through a process. Words are extracted from texts, positioned with images, and partly deleted; images are silkscreened onto mirrors and tagged with Arial Bold type; letters are spray-painted, photographed, laser printed, collaged and then screen printed; photocopies lead to the infrastructure of a painting.
Pendleton’s flair for montage is especially evident in the exhibition’s only video, which records a meeting between the artist and Yvonne Rainer. They share a meal in a Manhattan diner during which each presents something to the other. Rainer, drawing on her life as a dancer and choreographer, shows Pendleton a movement that requires them to join their hands and forearms. Pendleton asks Rainer to read aloud a text that he has composed, an amalgamation that includes excerpts from Rainer’s memoir; the essay “Pitfalls of Liberalism” by Stokely Carmichael; descriptions of police killings from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation; and the poem “Albany” by Ron Silliman. There is a simplicity to their encounter that is captivating, and, like the wall-based works, it is marked by fluidity.
Allie Biswas is a writer and editor, mainly working on artist interviews. She is the co-editor of an anthology of critical texts relating to the Black Arts Movement, to be published next year.