LOUISVILLE, KY — Billed as a “survey of quilt-based will work,” Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch at the Velocity Art Museum feels considerably less like an overview of one particular particular part of the multidisciplinary artist’s oeuvre and much more like a record of his imaginative approach in general — tactile evidence of the evolution of creative suggestions fields of interest that have held his fascination visible motifs that have appeared, in different guises and permutations, during his occupation. The show incorporates 33 quilt performs relationship from 2012 to 2020 (the catalogue documents an amazing overall of 100 this kind of items), along with two online video operates from 2000 and 2014.
Biggers, who is known for sculpture, movie, installation, new music, and effectiveness, commenced the Codex collection in 2009, soon after he was gifted about 50 19th-century American quilts in different degrees of disrepair. These familiar with his artistic output will understand some of his other artworks in their quilted counterparts: “Blossom Study” (2014), a sq. quilt of smaller, hexagonal patchwork on to which he has painted the outline of a grand piano bursting with flowers, is a sketch of his 2007 sculptural and seem set up “Blossom,” in which he fused an 18-foot-tall duplicate of a tree with the tummy of a grand piano, its unattended keys actively playing his recording of “Strange Fruit.”
Identical surrogates are present, this sort of as “Floral Seated Warrior” (2017), a portrait-oriented quilt of chunky gray and beige blocks with a blue, floral-print silhouette of Biggers’s “BAM (Seated Warrior)” sculpture (2017). Representations of “Lotus” (2007) — his flower fashioned from repetitions of a slave ship diagram — and the wide, iconic pink lips of “Cheshire” (2008) surface commonly. “Incognito” (2014), for occasion, is a sq. piece composed of bow-tie sections of two different quilts, a cacophony of pattern and shade onto which Biggers has added the smudged outline of a Cheshire grin, its sly smile a bit hidden less than improvised dashes of gold, blue, orange, pink, and lavender paint. The prospers are, probably, vestiges of the artist’s graffiti days (Biggers grew up in Los Angeles, the place he participated in the avenue art scene). As with all his elaborations, they impart a new and distinct layer of meaning to the antique quilts.
That Biggers is doing work with quilts is important, as they are, by definition, layered objects — most generally, a piece of batting sandwiched between two pieces of material and stitched with each other. When he 1st commenced the Codex series, he was intrigued by the contested legend that quilts had been utilised as coded objects to manual these escaping slavery in the southern United States by the Underground Railroad. In the artist’s fingers, the quilts come to be palimpsests: historic messages reanimated by way of the addition of contemporary signifiers, symbols, and codes, these types of as graffiti.
A codex, the earliest variety of the modern book, was also held collectively by stitching, and enabled a quantum leap ahead, expertise-intelligent, by enabling random access to reference materials, as opposed to the sequential accessibility demanded by a scroll. In many techniques, Codeswitch appears to be to rejoice and revel in information, its references revealing a voracious, eclectic, and generally mischievous intellect. Motifs have double meanings (a Cheshire grin remembers the two a 19th-century English novel and an American blackface minstrel show a tree signifies both equally enlightenment and lynchings) titles include intelligent puns (“Big Dada”), witty wordplay (“Kubrick’s Rube”), and other shibboleths of a really learned and cultured brain (“Quo Vadis” “Chorus for Paul Mooney”) visual influences incorporate these a motley crew as Hiroshige, Sigmar Polke, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Inside a subset of operates, Biggers trades his acquainted visible lexicon for a additional rigorous exploration of abstraction and a further engagement with the quilt designs. In “Tyranny of Mirrors” (2017), he items alongside one another segments of three different quilts, just about every featuring a comparable hexagonal pattern, with a silver-leaf sample that appears to be to recede into space, as if the viewer is wanting into a corridor of mirrors. The influence, not in contrast to op-art, is mesmerizing. In “Transition” (2018) and the onomatopoeically named “Ooo Oui” (2017), he incorporates sequins into equivalent abstract constructions with even a lot more bedazzling effects.
In a further subseries, Biggers honors the trompe-l’oeil aspirations held by some quilt makers by adhering sections of cloth to geometric shapes manufactured of plywood, which he joins to compose wall-mounted sculptures that resemble large origami constructions. “Reconstruction” (2019), with its triangular panels of fabric that include the United States flag, phone calls to head the rhythmic layering of triangles associated in folding a flag when viewed from a length, it also evokes that old Cheshire smile, a visible wink as wry as the double entendre of the piece’s title.
Two online video works round out the exhibition: the single-channel “Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II” (2000) is projected on to a square monitor marginally elevated from the flooring, replicating the overhead look at of a breakdance competitors. The dancers are competing on a flooring that Biggers intended from lower linoleum segments in a circular pattern, prefiguring his quilting task. In viewing the breakdancers from over, the emphasis moves from personal tricks to the broader movement throughout the patterned ground, a great deal like the sewn lines that traverse a quilt’s pieced fabric. Seems of the cheering crowd mingle with the music, as if to affirm that what is sacred can also be celebratory.
“Moonrising” (2014) is a seven-and-a-50 % minute video clip set to music by Biggers’s band, Moon Medicin, and options two Black men in a wooded region. They are variously bare robed in quilts, hoodies, or mantles of feathers (the artist’s 2006 “Ghettobird Tunic,” most likely?) or shirtless, donning jeans, golden masks, and baseball caps as they roam the woods. Sung lyrics allude to the legend of coded quilts foremost enslaved men and women to flexibility.
While QR codes on the museum partitions give a glossary of themes, conditions, and historic figures to aid the interpretation of the quilted performs, no supplemental published materials is presented for “Moonrising.” This follows the encounter in the United States, the place anti-literacy regulations prohibited the written transmission of awareness between enslaved persons, but they could transform to the oral traditions of West African griots to express data.
In reconnecting quilts with the entire body and their primal function of bestowing warmth and defense, “Moonrising” would seem to eschew mental know-how for that which can only be known as a result of knowledge. As viewers, we might not have all the codes to interpret the many conceptual layers of the quilted operates, but we can check out men jogging by the woods, hidden in quilts, in advance of unfurling them in an open up area, and appear closer to understanding the huge dread and threat of escape, as very well as its potential for magnificent independence.
Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch carries on at the Speed Art Museum (2035 South 3rd Street, Louisville, Kentucky) by June 26. The exhibition was co-structured by the Bronx Museum of the Arts and Rivers Institute for Contemporary Artwork & Imagined, and co-curated by Dr. Andrea Andersson and Antonio Sergio Bessa.