not but nothing other: African-American Portrayals, 1930s to Today

McArthur Binion (born 1946)
DNA: Sepia: IV, 2016

At first glance this large painting may look to be an abstract field of color and gesture, but upon closer examination we find hints of the artist’s history and identity. In his DNA series, begun in 2013, McArthur Binion uses personal documents—negatives of his birth certificate, handwritten pages of old address books—as a ground for his layered grids of rich color. These simultaneously conceal and reveal the “archival” material underneath, necessitating our close looking and providing his works with their surprising emotional charge. One curator evocatively described these documents as “ghost images” that provide a counterweight to his “lush, monochromatic, obsessively formed works.”

With roots in the South, Binion calls himself “a true rural modernist.” Indeed, in his hands, the grid—a schema long associated with Euro-American modernism—becomes something almost quilt-like in its tactility. If the scraps of address book or birth certificate in the DNA paintings hint at his life’s narrative, their resolutely handmade surfaces offer up a story of the work’s own making. In his eyes, the two are inseparable: “The same hands, which bled picking cotton as a child, now bleed from the abrasion of colored wax on wood.”

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