Women and their Work, Austin
Through August 31
by Ariel Evans
The soundtrack of lauren woods’ … all over … (After the Crucifixion (After P. Pfeiffer (After F. Bacon)) (2009) fills Women and their Work with choral music snippets and chirping bird sounds. Paired with rows of church pews that face the projection, the work sets the tone for woods’ solo show, which features video clips altered from popular television and urban tourist areas in a gallery space rendered pseudo-spiritual.
Looming in front of the pews, … all over … features a .gif of the rapper Ludacris center frame and gazing upwards. Arms opened wide with a lens-flare-as-halo behind his head, woods’ Ludacris is a Christ figure standing in an unidentified African village. woods made this .gif from a split-second clip of Ludacris’ 2005 music video (entitled “Pimpin’ All Over the World”) in Durban, South Africa. Wearing a t-shirt that refers to Garvey’s spirited Back to Africa movement in the 1920s, it’s possible that Ludacris saw his African setting as a sort of return. That would make sense, given the Garvey reference, but Ludacris looks bizarre in the video, pimping as he does through a parade of African stereotypes. Though woods’ approach tempers this sense of the ridiculous by setting a religious tone she also exacerbates it, using the .gif form commonly used to make some action look silly on the Internet. Not that Ludacris needed the help appearing—dare I say it—ludicrous.
Woods’ play on mediated tribalism continues in Inkblot Projective Test #1 (Darkest Africa) (2006). In terms of subject matter, the two videos are similar, since Inkblot Projective Test features woods’ alteration of an old television clip of black men in tribal costume running towards the camera. It consists of two mirroring projections set catty-corner from one another; as the “tribal” men flee towards the camera, they in fact run into the gallery corner and into their own reflections. The corner becomes a Rorschach test, a device that by definition demands the viewer’s interpretation. Substituting the inkblot within the video with so-called African tribals, this Rorschach device presents the viewer as responsible for their own vision of Africa.
None of that is difficult to figure out, and the works’ obviousness indicates a concern with conceptual clarity. A frequent enough prejudice against modern and contemporary art is that it’s impossible to understand without a lengthy education or the benefit of curatorial essays; such intermediaries aren’t necessary for those seeking to grasp woods’ message. Given that transparency, the number of accompanying literary and historical references is surprising. Didactic texts appear in a xeroxed and stapled catalog with explanations of the meaning, creation and source material of each video. It turns out, for example, that the source for Inkblot Projective Test is a clip from a 1936 movie serial called Darkest Africa. Such references to noteworthy African-American cultural material extend beyond the work in the show. For example, woods’ choice to write “lauren woods” in lowercase letters most likely refers to black feminist thinker bell hooks, and the title of the show itself is adapted from James Baldwin’s 1955 Notes of a Native Son. Xeroxes of the front and back covers and two pages of Baldwin’s book appear in the catalog.
However, there’s no need to know all of those sources in order to understand how the work plays with representations of Africa and its diaspora. woods’ choices of visual devices—crucifixion, .gif image, Rorschach test—are familiar enough for most viewers, regardless of their knowledge of contemporary art or black history. Hence gallery visitors are best off avoiding the available text materials and instead spending the time to look at and understand woods’ videos for themselves.
Ariel Evans is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin and is the editor of the forthcoming Pastelegram magazine.