1.19 / Review

Kamau Amu Patton

By Matt Stromberg July 13, 2010
Kamau Amu Patton, installation view, Alphonse Berber Projects. Photo: Taylor Savvy. Courtesy of If Not This: Alphonse Berber Projects, San Francisco.

What initially strikes one upon entering Kamau Amu Patton’s show at Alphonse Berber Projects is the darkness. So much so that gallery director Jessica Cox immediately informed me that it was not a mistake; the lights were off for a reason. She could tell by my hesitant steps that it was unclear to me what I was stepping into—which is exactly what Patton intended. His exhibition comprises bent and twisted pieces of metal littering the floor, glass panes and black mirrors leaning against the walls, strategically placed lights, black canvases and collages, and a fog machine. Although made up of minimal elements, the effect is more than the sum of its parts. Patton has created an immersive environment that illuminates the role of the viewer in completing the work; one does not so much see the work as experience it through its hybrid elements.

The few bright lights that pierce the darkness cast dramatic shadows as viewers move about the space. From one side, they illuminate; from another, they obscure. Whereas light normally illuminates individual works in a gallery, here it is part of the work. Viewers are forced to navigate around scraps of steel and glass with little visual aid and risk stepping on the several works lying on the ground. The fog machine heightens this disorientation, producing a diaphanous mist that captures the light and creates an opaque blue mass in the center of the room. Walking through the exhibition, I was reminded of Minimalist artist Tony Smith’s infamous nighttime car ride on an unfinished section of highway, which made him aware of the importance of experience over purely retinal sensation. Speaking to the experience, he said, “I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most paintings look pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it.”1

Patton’s current work seems to borrow from the aesthetic language of Minimalist art. But the scale differentiates this work from its predecessors. In the place of large and imposing industrial monoliths, Patton presents modest pieces, most no taller than an end table.

Instead of menace, these works seem almost playful; instead of confrontation, they invite curiosity, compelling viewers to direct their attention downward to contemplate the work, but also to avoid tripping over them in the low light. A long, flat strip of metal bisecting the gallery floor recalls Carl Andre’s floor pieces. However, whereas Andre’s works dared us to step on them, Patton’s, at less than a foot wide, suggests we step over it. His works demand our attention, if only to avoid bruising a shin, rather than being crushed by a ton of steel. In this, Patton combines the aesthetic sensibility of Richard Serra with the whimsy of Richard Tuttle.

Kamau Amu Patton, installation view, Alphonse Berber Projects. Photo: Taylor Savvy. Courtesy of If Not This: Alphonse Berber Projects, San Francisco.

Patton augments these sculptural works with a series of black paintings and collages. At the far end of the gallery is Large Grey (2010), a black canvas that fits perfectly over the windows, blocking out sunlight. On this surface, a delicate, almost imperceptible line cuts across the canvas diagonally from corner to corner. Near the entrance of the room, a textured black diptych, Medium Grey (2010), recalls Robert Rauschenberg’s early black paintings. The patterned surfaces change with the light as one moves around, heightening a viewer’s awareness of the relationship between the paintings, bodies, and light.

A text-based work near the entrance provides a further exploration of the role perception plays in creating the work. Moving out of the way of empty space (2010) is part new-age dictum, part scientific theorem. It highlights the space between object and symbol, between the physical and that which exists in the mind. With this piece, Patton draws our attention to the hybrid nature of our experience of artwork: part visual, part physical, and part conceptual. It provides an instruction manual for thinking about the rest of the show.

Those familiar with Patton’s previous work may view this show as something of a departure. He has used performance, video, and installation to explore ritual, belief, and identity among diaspora cultures. His is “a conceptually based art that creates a new or hybridized but coherent belief system based on this pastiche of mythologies, folktales, subjective histories.”2 Often playing a role in his own videos, he incorporates disparate sources—from the Black Israelites and the 5 Percent Nation to space-jazz pioneer Sun Ra and gothic futurist Rammellzee—and folds them into a narrative with its own internal logic. The common thread between his earlier dynamic and frenetic works and his current darkly spare show is an interest in the performative. Patton does not present viewers with discrete, static images, but with a constantly shifting landscape of light and shadow, through which viewers must navigate their own—if somewhat treacherous—path.


Kamau Amu Patton is on view at Alphonse Berber Projects in San Francisco through August 7, 2010.


  1. Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., "Talking with Tony Smith," Artforum, Dec. 1966.
  2. Michelle Y. Hyun, “Interview with Kamau Patton.” ArtSlant.

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