The work of art is not hanging on the wall: Ta-coumba Aiken and decentered art/artists

In the same way that the revolution will not be televised, the work of art is never on the page or hanging on the museum wall. A work of art is nothing more than the effect that it has on actual people: those implicated in its creation and its reception.

Yesterday I went with some of the Mellon family to see the art of Ta-Aiken, who was there to greet us and others at the exhibition “Healing Hands, Healing Lands,” at Lowertown Lofts at 255 E. Kellogg Blvd. in downtown St. Paul, on the Farmers’ Market. Incidentally, Ta-coumba (with some help, of course) did the set design for Daak, Call to Action, Ananya Dance Theatre’s new performance, which we will see on June 15 (last summer we saw Pipaashaa).

Ta-coumba is a muralist, who has done the new St. Paul Labor History mural, and his work is part of the transformative urban geography that I think will be enormously influential in this new century, where artists take the public spaces they live in and make them their own, defacing capital in its strongholds and defying the unwritten and written strictures that define who lives and goes and does what where. The painting of trash cans in North Minneapolis by Juxtaposition Arts students also seems like a step in this transformative direction.

The impact of untitled

Perhaps the first thing that those conditioned by museums in their encounter with “art” will notice is that almost none of the pieces have names (the one exception I saw was a small piece for sale, poignantly titled “Alone?”). Ta-coumbas, who is very forthright and active in dialoguing with others about his art and offering his own take on it, explains that the pieces don’t have titles because it is you, the spectator/reader/audience, that must tell the story. This is a courageous self-effacement on the part of an artist, a putting-in-practice of the philosophy put forth by (2?) pieces in the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the first being a white-washed canvas with the standard placard that would state the artist’s name and the title of the piece being white-washed as well. The next piece, if it is indeed separate, was an assortment of paintings turned to lean against the wall with their “backs” to us, hiding their content. Obviously these pieces launch a powerful and multivalent critique in many different directions, but it is that white-washed placard that has stuck with me: I cannot even here cite the name of the person(s) who created this tremendous piece because that artist is completely removed from the piece itself. I am not even left with a title to derive some sense of what this critique is supposed to mean-I am completely alone in drawing meaning from the piece. In a museum context Ta-coumba’s pieces do have titles, but everywhere outside this capitalist context his work flows untitled. [The above painting was titled “Call and Response II” for Ta-coumba’s Minneapolis Institute of Arts show collectively titled “Call and Response”]

The work of art will not be televised

The revolution, as I stated above, occurs in the mind, and that is where what is exciting about Ta-coumba’s work takes place. The artist dies in the name of community, a glorious anarchy of sense that brings people together rather than subjecting them to the will of some absent “artist.” Ta-coumba decenters the artist in many ways. He views his work as a kind of autopainting, giving himself over and submitting his work, to some extent, to the ancestors and spirits and cultures that he feels work through him. Similarly, Ta-coumba makes a space for nature and random chance, as in the story he tells of the set design for Daak, which he just completed. He was to combine rain, smoke, and dirt for these projects. When his pieces were caught in the rain he let nature do its work, washing it with water and dirt, combining with his own paint. Thus the community involved in the creation and consumption of his work is larger even than humans in their more traditional subjectivity.

Ta-coumba’s work runs through lines, the process of which he calls “spirit writing,” which form “rhythm patterns.” The process builds in complexity as often color is added in a next step, and figures begin to emerge, on which Ta-coumba elaborates. The paintings end up seeming almost infinitely complex, where figures within figures form larger figures as the ripples of the rhythm patterns intersect and cross. Thus the experience of his art is collaborative, as others help you see things that you don’t and all share in a joy and learning of discovery.

The death of the painter (and whiteness’ 30-second art consumer)

So what does the death of the author really look like? These independent readings all form the artwork in question. The thing hanging on the wall is just an illusion: it is what happens in and between the minds of the viewer that is real. We are each endowed with specific perspectives, interests, histories, and circumstances that allow us to see different things in a work of art, bringing out different resonances and formations. Every time someone new looks at a painting, that person brings it an inch closer to completion, obviously a task that can never be fully completed. The death of the author seems difficult to accept in much of the written word, especially in the realm of literature, that myopic ivory tower where the lone genius white European artist is the fount of all creativity. It was this myopia that lent Roland Barthes’ ideas so much of their revolutionary resonance. Painting helps teach us how little the intention of the author really should mean.

The complexity of Ta-coumba’s paintings thwarts the European will to total knowledge (a colonial legacy that we inherit today; for a wonderful critique of this mentality, see the new Indiana Jones movie). At the same time, these paintings force you to look at a painting for longer than the average 30 seconds-they confront you with the absolute that you will never know this piece in its totality, never totally grasp it. You can, however, start, and build, and that is the process that you are forced to go through with this piece-a kind of reconstruction.

The politics, poetics, and mechanics of seeing color

“What do you see?” Ta-coumba incessantly asks this question of those who experience his art, and like the best of art’s questions, this one is at once infinitely complicated and infinitely simple. Ta-coumba states up-front that he had his first art show at 6 years old (he also adds himself that this means he’s been making art for 49 years). But things changed when an accident at age 11 damaged the cones in his eyes, taking away his ability to “see color.” Seeing color, obviously, is a concept that requires significant unpacking. Even black and white, as a friend reminded me, is not just black and white. There’s an infinity of shadings encased in (and always threatening to leak through) those two words. This becomes evident when comparing Ta-coumba’s “black and white” paintings. But it becomes immediately obvious that this artist has not lost his command of “color” as all sections of the spectrum are represented in his work. Ta-Coumba was forced to “relearn” color (after the accident his mother gave him ink and a pen and told him to work with it until he could see again), and it is this reconstructive process that helps lend such an experiential rush and a conceptual impact to his work.

This may be a stretch, but I am tempted to link this to the essay by Lawrie Balfour (which reads WEB Du Bois and James Baldwin through each other through their differing conceptions of double consciousness) that I read for the Mellon Fellowship’s second weekly session this summer, specifically the part where she discusses the claim that African-Americans can better know the concept of liberty (and if you take liberty as an essential American view, they also can better understand and live America) for having been deprived of it and forced to fight for it through the greatest adversity. Color is something that we take for granted, the way white people take for granted the ability to enter any space they feel like entering. The deconstructive work that Ta-coumba does, with his explosions of color alternated with more austere, subtly-shaded “black and white” compositions, helps us to understand color. Moreover, Ta-coumba’s own life story brings to life the biotechnical mediation that surrounds us all the time, the eye that is responsible for so much of our interface with the world, which, when we are forced to acknowledge and work through it, hits like a Copernican flash. There is no such thing as essential color, just a spectrum of light reflected back at us. Color has no real significance-like the relationship of the signifier to the signified, color is somewhat arbitrary-it does not arise from any organic relationship with the thing it represents. “Color” as we know it is just a shared construct, that we’ve given name to because of the similar biological machinery, eyes, that most of us are born with.

Almost all art, especially, it seems to me, more abstract forms of art, rely to some extent on a shared pool of signs. Conventional color, as a convention, is a set of these signs. But there are always glitches in this set. None of us has the same set of cones and rods in our eyes, and most of us don’t have the same set ourselves from one year to the next. So we mustn’t trust simply our own sight, but rather interact with others. Ta-coumba uses color but once you’ve heard his whole story you can never look at color the same way. Even broader than this, Ta-coumba is short-sighted, so he will look at the lines coming together in one of his paintings with his glasses on and with his glasses off, creating higher degrees of complexity and obviously different “gazes” within the art work itself. We thus would need an infinite array of gazes to exhaust the meaning from one of these works.

Returning to the pool of shared signs, communication relies on the fact that some of these signs are basically self-evident. Black is a fairly self-evident sign. Isn’t it? Taking this notion apart reveals the pitfalls of conventional thinking, and the power relations embedded within it. At first, I thought several of the black and white paintings were harrowing, looking something like what I imagine a photographic negative of hell might bring back to our senses. On closer inspection, this reading was mostly wrong, and it arose from the palette itself, and the prominent place that black space played in it. I am reminded of Malcolm X’s awakening, that all the symbolic, semiotic weight attached to black was negative, opposed to the goodness of white, an order that justified slavery and primitive capital accumulation. Black (and white), freed of these oppressive normative instrumental meanings that have colonized it, is not evil, ugly, or terrifying. It is simply how Ta-coumba sees the world, and it is evident from looking at any of his paintings that he sees much beauty in it. Our analysis, then, must go beyond this palette.

I dispute, though, that Ta-coumba’s paintings are universally positive. They are certainly about healing, but healing doesn’t happen in the absence of hurt. Ta-coumba’s words itself explain the contradiction well: there’s nothing wrong with representing suffering or the negative, the only real problem is when people deny that suffering exists.


One Response to “The work of art is not hanging on the wall: Ta-coumba Aiken and decentered art/artists”

  1. I’m out of words. Your analysis debunked the complexity of the art and you’ve definitely done well in juxtaposing the artist and the work as well as the observer and the artist to recount multiple perspectives. To respond so quick to such a blog wouldn’t do you justice. I’ll need more time to think about the many points of your analysis. It’s truly captures a lot of the things that I saw in the paintings but didn’t think of at a higher level.

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