Negrogothic, A Manifesto, the Aesthetics of M. Lamar, 2014. Installation view, Participant Inc. Photo: Rona Yefman
Benjamin Thorpe (AP14) discusses the long legacy of the gothic at work in the recent exhibition “Negrogothic: A Manifesto, The Aesthetics of M. Lamar” at Participant Inc.
The creative premise of the Gothic arose in 12th century Île-de-France and heavily influenced European art and architecture in the following two centuries. It returned as a literary form - the gothic romance - which arrived in the U.S. along with gothic revival architecture. In the 20th century, “goth” became a cultural genre associated with the rise of punk and metal. The transitory and interdisciplinary nature of the Gothic makes it a difficult phenomenon to describe but at the same time continues to renew its aesthetic potential.
The most recent show at Participant Inc., “Negrogothic: A Manifesto, The Aesthetics of M. Lamar,” invoked the mis-en-scene of the gothic novel, imbuing it with the history of slavery and the African American experience. In an interview for Vice, Lamar said, “I started using the term Negrogothic because I was reading about the Gothic novel in which there’s this blending of romance and horror. That seemed to be this thing that I had been doing in my work for a long time. And a more obvious thing: I’m a goth kid. I’m very invested in goth, metal, and punk subcultures and taking them with me.”
Entering his exhibition, the viewer was immediately confronted with a stockade, in front of which was a small table with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and The Cornel West Reader - academic compass settings for the installation. The scene included a cotton plant, a raised platform with a penis guillotine and a wooden baby grand piano. A black-and-white video piece called Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche. Part Two, Overseer was projected above the piano during gallery hours. The video, which was shot on site, addresses racial power dynamics through BDSM imagery. Stills from the video decorated the walls.
The presence of video shot in the space, of the space, recalls that opaque experience of seeing a surveillance monitor in a department store: you’re entering a closed circuit. This not only raises the fraught politics of surveillance, exemplified this past summer in the absurd handling of surveillance footage from the police shootings of Michael Brown, John Crawford and Kajieme Powell, but places Lamar’s work in conversation with the history of video art, which in the 60s and 70s became concerned with the formal aspects of the closed-circuit monitor.
M. Lamar performing Badass Nigga in Toronto, July 2010
The word gothic was coined as an ethnic stereotype by art historians of the Renaissance. These Italian classicists conflated French art and architecture of the preceding 12th and 13th centuries with the Visigoths, a tribe they perceived as barbaric. John Ruskin pointed out this faulty comparison in a chapter from The Stones of Venice, “The Nature of the Gothic.” His reading of gothic history formed the foundation for a romantic philosophy of craft that, in reaction against the effects of the machine age, embraced the abject and the handmade: “Let [an artist] but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dulness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also.” Efforts like Ruskin’s to re-historicize the medieval Gothic are sometimes criticized as post-facto projections. The territory is somewhat vague because there was no institutionalized art history before the Renaissance, at which point the practice of historicizing and commodifying art was assumed by a white patriarchy. Nevertheless, gothic history has increasingly been applied to post-colonial, queer and disability studies and other areas of postmodern theory.
Rutland Psalter, MS 62925 British Library, ca. 1260. Fol. 98r.
Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Michael Camille was one of the first medievalists to open Gothic studies to these lines of thought, focusing on the visible alliance of high and low imagery within the ecology of medieval gothic space. Emerging from the joints, corners and peripheries of Gothic cathedrals are any number of “grotesques” - gargoyles and mocking faces, each of them distinct, but so elevated or hidden that they were hardly visible to most of the public. The margins of illuminated manuscripts of the same period often contained an ongoing commentary on medieval society with hybrid creatures, jongleurs (street performers), monks, nuns, aristocrats, tradespersons and anthropomorphized animals caught up in games and parodies. Conversely, as in the nave of a cathedral, the center of the manuscript page was stable and geometric, following a scripted set of representational norms.
Lamar’s reference to the contemporary architecture of surveillance and punishment positions his work as a counter-narrative in the Gothic sense. This structural backdrop is now a mainstay of post-medieval gothica and continues to function across disciplines. As a capstone to his exhibition, Lamar performed a song called Tree of Blood: A Requiem. Projected above the piano while he sang was the high-contrast image of a leafless tree, with red droplets slowly filling the surface of the screen. This simple, almost clichéd imagery supported an intense musical arc into which Lamar, a trained countertenor, inserted gospel and blues motifs, distorting them repeatedly though never the same way twice. He quoted from songs like Deep River, Strange Fruit, and Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. He included a bar from Franz Schubert at one point, a quintessentially Romantic composer known for his pastoral style, whose formal strophic qualities proved, curiously, at home with the traditional spirituals. Lamar’s music unfolded beautifully and viscerally, but the songs quoted, which are usually so sensual and lulling, never found solid ground. His tempi atrophied and accelerated, and notes that began lyrically became shrill or metallic, creating a sense of displacement.
In the same way that the marginal or peripheral spaces of medieval Gothic art and architecture are the most imaginative and hence personal, Lamar’s distortion of traditional musical motifs and social narratives carves out a political space on his own terms. During his performance, Lamar quoted such familiar melodic forms only long enough to warp them once more, and the piece ended with a sustained note on the verge of a yell.
The next artist to be featured at Participant Inc. will be Greer Lankton (1958-1996). This exhibition arrives in tandem with several events that have focused on Cookie Mueller and the downtown avant-garde of the late 1980s in the context of the AIDS crisis.