Diedrick Brackens: This is Real Life

Review

Diedrick Brackens: This is Real Life

By Anton Stuebner March 31, 2015

Diedrick Brackens’ show at Johansson Projects, This Is Real Life, opens arrestingly: with two woven wall hangings resembling elongated Band-Aids, their frayed white “gauze” “stained” with rainbow-hued “blood.” Initially, blat (2015) and blatent (2015) seem almost playful, as their exaggerated scale (nearly three feet long) and materials (tea-dyed cotton, acrylic, nylon) make apparent their obvious artificiality. No one would mistake this for trompe l’oeil. But the artist makes clear in the accompanying text that they are far from cheerful exaggerations, and indeed deliberate references to wounded bodies. But whose bodies? Are they queer bodies, as the rainbow-colored blood may suggest? Or bodies that have been queered through violence—made strange and unfamiliar by larger cultures and systems of oppression?

Consisting largely of textile-based works, This Is Real Life traces both the presence and the absence of bodies. The brightly colored pieces may seem, on the surface, to bear little resemblance to familiar human forms. Traces of the body, however, are everywhere. By utilizing a medium known for the intense manual work it requires, Brackens fills his weavings with indexical markers of his own hand. He takes it a step further by actually describing the works as “portraits,” eliding familiar limits between abstraction and figuration, and subverting conventional understandings of how individuals are represented. And in doing so, he deliberately raises troubling questions about how bodies are made absent, specifically through violence. What happens when the subject of portraiture has been violently erased? How to represent a person of whom all that is left are traces?

Diedrick Brackens. 10-79, 2015; hand-woven fabric, nylon, chenille, hand-dyed cotton, bleach; 66 x 14 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Johansson Projects, Oakland.

The wall hanging 10-79 (2015) bears all sorts of bodily traces. At first glance, the piece seems rather cozy—just what one imagines “homespun” might look like: a mélange of green, orange, and cerulean yarns woven into thick stripes, blocked by horizontal bands of orange, spotted with red fringed dots. Its brightly hued pattern and decorative fringe echo long traditions of domestic textiles: table runners, woolen scarves, beach towels. But Brackens draws out these warm, homey associations only to erase them, literally, with wild splashes of bleach. The stains function as visual interruptions, decisive breaks in an otherwise ordered field. The juxtaposition of order and disorder—of patterns and stains, geometric shapes and abstract forms—raises questions of vulnerability, the assumed limits of integrity and wholeness, and the ways in which wholeness can be ruptured and destroyed through violent intervention. These bleach stains weren’t all flung from a “safe” distance, either; on closer examination, one stain toward the top bears the distinctively figurative form of a handprint.

Named after the standard police radio code for “call the coroner,” 10-79 was conceptualized by Brackens in the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. In the accompanying gallery notes, he describes the piece as a double portrait of Brown and Eric Garner, the African American man killed in Staten Island while being held in a police chokehold. Viewed in response to the political conditions surrounding these deaths, the (white) handprint gains a disquietingly deeper significance involving historical and contemporary narratives of violence against nonwhite bodies. It is about the continued stain of racism. But if it represents, on the one hand, a horrific, violent intervention, it also functions as a marker of an inverse presence. The bleach may have removed pigment, but in doing so, it left a new mark—not the same as what was there before, but something that can serve as a continuous reminder, an imperative to never forget.

Diedrick Brackens. 10-79, 2015 (detail); hand-woven fabric, nylon, chenille, hand-dyed cotton, bleach; 66 x 14 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Johansson Projects, Oakland.

Even more moving are the bleeding wounds rendered in red chenille. By using a yarn known for its softness, Brackens seemingly invites viewers to touch the wounds of the fallen bodies the work commemorates—almost. Just as assumed limits of proper viewership restrict our touch, the fallen bodies are rendered just out of reach. 10-79 taunts us with its untouchable tactility.

Vulnerable bodies are invoked again in the sculptural work tired of talking (2015). Like 10-79, this piece considers how nonwhite persons are forcibly absented through violent interventions. But whereas the other work records the physical traces left behind by bodies under attack, tired of talking examines how bodies are restricted through human-made instruments. The installation is formally simple: a single strip of woven yellow fabric, embellished with black acrylic yarn, wrapped in a zigzag pattern around a wooden sawhorse. Figurative traces of the body seem all but absent, until we remember that sawhorses are a direct reference to policing bodies through physical restraint. However innocent their origins as carpenters’ aids, they have come to be inextricably associated with the riot-control barriers employed by urban police. Suddenly, the yellow strip of fabric comes to evoke caution tape, a material with its own troubling relationship to confinement and crime scenes.

Diedrick Brackens. tired of talking, 2015; wood, hardware, hand-woven fabric, commercially dyed cotton; 37 x 42 x 25 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Johansson Projects, Oakland.

By invoking these histories and their associations, Brackens acknowledges that seemingly innocuous devices can produce real and violent effects. Yet in juxtaposing the “hardness” of such objects with the softness of fabric, he also shows how they—and their violent associations—might effectively be deactivated. Things don’t have to be this way, he seems to be urging us. What in one scenario serves as a forceful instrument of restraint can also be a harmless wrapping, a simple ribbon of material. Brackens’ work can’t bring back Michael Brown or Eric Garner, but it offers the possibility of imagining a future in which weapons and barriers can be kept “under wraps” and vulnerable bodies can be protected from harm.

Histories of oppression cannot be erased, and their traces, Brackens suggests in This Is Real Life, need to be remembered. But in order to build a better future—a less violent future—we also need to face these histories head-on and turn them upside down. Wrapped up like a present, the sawhorse becomes a powerless artifact, a curiosity. It may still bear a historical burden, but wrapped up in a bow, it can’t harm us anymore.

This Is Real Life: Diedrick Brackens is on view at Johansson Projects, in Oakland, through April 23, 2015.

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