This Bitter Earth at M+B, Los Angeles, CA

Through the use of materials found in the everyday built environment, Los Angeles-based artist Tyler Christopher Brown cross-examines and exposes the brutal fusions of violence and aspiration which remain vulnerable to erasure. In This Bitter Earth, Brown’s engagement with the uses of steel and rebar emerges as a gesture to or an indictment of the industrial production characteristic of the modernist period. The prevalence of the hand in this work does more than announce the specter of labor but saves these materials from their assumed generality by emphasizing the very cause for their circulation: anti-Black violence. For Brown, learning from Arte Povera, or the repurposing of economical and destitute objects, functions as a strategy through which to lay bare not only concerns of class but the racialized trade of desire, language, and history as such. Central to his practice and this exhibition, is a theory and materiality of the vine; the thicket of history or the entanglement of political, and social duress from which the fauna of dispossession and the music of exclusion inevitably emerge.

“And if my life”, sings Dinah Washington in the record from which the exhibition’s title is pulled, “is like the dust/that hides the glow of a rose/ what good am I?” The closing question of value is severe. Value emanates a song, a low croon tuned between the fanged stems of Brown’s bouquet of roses and scarred lottery tickets. If one listens well—as if one is not always already welded to and by the librettos of dispossession—this question is better translated as: what are the conditions which keep the value of Blackness in question? Or instead, what conditions keep Blackness in excess of value’s measure? The roses, which feature prominently in This Bitter Earth, invoke Washington’s lyrics and economies of desire and aspiration. Made of dispossessed clothing (sourced from streets named after the Founding Fathers) destined for State-financed disposal, Brown dips what remains in porcelain or terracotta. The tear and frayed edge of the fabric is bound up and ossified, the displacement and reconstitution of form is exposed. The dispossessions and reconstitutions of “disposable life” are laid bare through Brown’s transmutative impulse. Hiding is not the concern of Brown’s practice as the concern of anti-Blackness is irreducible to a ‘remaining hidden’ in the conventional sense. The work clarifies the State’s libertine displays of terror which do not represent themselves strictly through the spectacles of bodily violence but in the seductive geographies of the everyday, in plain sight and which are therefore unthought. A motivated forgetting appears.

Brown’s enlarged lottery tickets, superimposed with star systems, takes this question of violence and chance to the cosmic scale. Dispersed across a cosmology, a heaven overdetermined by neoliberalism, Blackness can be found in a constellation of variations of everyday systems, institutions, industries, and fantasies. Aspirational and theocratic narratives of American life are exposed for their unavailability to Black flesh. The narrative of mastery represents itself as a lottery when it is in fact an overdetermined game, a crucifixion, a keloid scarring wherein the deification of blood which weeps from Black flesh invites hope for salvation and fear of damnation. The featured substrate of mild steel replicating the Johannes Gutenberg font, spells out the title of the exhibition and invokes a semblance of religious iconography, referencing illuminated manuscripts associated with Christianity dating back to the Roman period. The lottery of the rapture clarifies its dependency upon the captive body exiled from deliverance. 

Following Stan, the slaughterhouse worker of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Brown situates the implicit gore of Black aspirational labor (or the antagonism between labor and slavery) as the ongoing condition whereby, to quote Burnett’s words on the film, “you don’t necessarily win battles; you survive.” Punctilio of the ‘game’, Brown reminds us, is reserved for those endowed with the power to Master (or design) its rules, its allegedly unpredictable practices. Blackness, however, is not another player but a moving piece, not a Subjecthood that can win but an objecthood which can only survive. Blackness, simply put, is what civil society aspires to Master. It is the rebar of exchange and the captive instrument of pleasure in the agora of mastery.

And perhaps survival, too, offers little reprieve. It is the unbearable demand of staying alive in a World which demands the permutation of your pain; the dispersion of it into the very iron flesh and steel organs of the built environment—gratifying in their guarantee and lethal in their discretion. The comfort of contradiction can no longer Hold. Compromise is structured like an antagonism and a case for a conceptual arson unfolds. The bound, hung, and twisted work of Brown’s exhibition animates the intensities of seduction and dispossession across a World which consolidates itself upon the logic of perpetual violence: the legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. And what is the Trade if not the limit case of value? The condition of possibility for the property form? What is it if not the carnage which brought and continues to bring the World’s economies, its anti-Black metallurgy, into being?

Learning from the composite and brazing methodologies of the late Mike Davis, Brown expands upon the famous remark from City of Quartz that Los Angeles “is not a mere city. On the contrary, it is, and has been since 1888, a commodity; something to be advertised and sold to the people of the United States…”. Going beyond the analysis of the locale, Brown articulates the architectures upon which civil society relies as a set of planetary relations which collapse into a commodity itself, a commodity fetishism set forth by the historical malleability of, to invoke Hortense Spillers, black flesh: a commodity both sentient and dead, present and truant, imperishable and incinerated. Flesh, which is first hardened into shrapnel, is forged into smog that coats the landscape of the lungs with the satin of social death.

This Bitter Earth incisively refuses the allures of the aspirational object which purports to offer ‘a way out’ and instead advances an indictment of aspiration as a game of chance wherein every decision made, every arrangement encountered— under anti-Blackness—can only, to paraphrase Frank Wilderson III, continuously render Black subjects magnets for ontological violence; as that which allegedly seduces the pierce of metal and the foreclosure of consent (to choose how we go out and how long we might stay). Thorns of the rose become fangs which proliferate without end. Multiplying until the excess of blood delimits new investments and privatized resources for the reproduction of scarcity against the abundance of what lies at the bottom of the Atlantic. And the horror of negotiating the will to aspire becomes the will to conspire against that which plays the flesh to the droning tune of ports, tarmacs, bedrooms, gardens, and highways: the quotidian hum of perpetual annihilation.

- Text by Boz Garden

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