A poem by Langston Hughes brought me to Sugar Hill, curious about a neighborhood with a nickname so fanciful that I never imagined it could exist. I devoured Sugar Hill in hungry snapshots for months on end. I worked a convoluted subway route to enter and leave by both day and night, so tantalized was I by the potential for sticky-sweet residue from the famed glory days of the Harlem Renaissance. Almost a year after I first strolled the streets of Sugar Hill, I found a resident who lives Harlem’s rich creative legacy. The elegant and hospitable Marjorie Eliot treats the public to jazz concerts at her home each weekend. Here she is paying tribute to a former bandmate at Jackie Robinson Park.
I wanted to make a work that addresses what I already know about Harlem. For me, the Harlem Globetrotters represent a certain kind of lineage and heritage associated with Black people. Harlem has been the stage for many Black performers, whether at the Apollo, the Dance Theatre of Harlem or the Studio Museum, and has played host to a slew of entertainers over the years. Every time I make a painting, I feel like I’m putting on a show within the pictorial space. I feel a direct connection between the Globetrotters and what art does: entertain and engage the viewer through a type of performance.
My paintings, with their loud colors, divergent angles and competing layers, seem to indulge in the language of expressionism. But upon inspection, the colors are thin, artificial; the compositions are deliberately unresolved; the layers do not build and cohere but drift, ignore each other or clash. Despite this lack of conviction, a certain buoyant or even jubilant attitude is communicated. For my Harlem Postcard, I focused on aspects of the urban landscape that beckoned me with visual kismet. Zooming in on ragged or discolored signage, I flagged the ripped edge, seeking reflections in panes of glass, awning stripes and leftover duct tape. I saw in abstraction not essence, but artifice.
It was fun.
This image was a last-minute decision—the façade of a supermarket, its window display tattered by the abuse of the workaday, the pixels of the printed sign exposed like enlarged pores, offering up an image of fractured abundance.
In 1984, Russian artist Ilya Kabakov slang-shot his cosmonaut hero beyond Earth’s authorized reality in his famous piece The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment. The same year, actor Joe Morton was chased through the streets of Harlem as an extraterrestrial nonbeing in director John Sayles’s urban sci-fi classic, The Brother from Another Planet. Some twenty-seven years later, Harlem has again become the landing strip for a “brother from another planet.” I imagine Kabakov as the hero cosmonaut, but with an illegitimate child who gets propelled back to Earth. Thrust from the fence-tangled stroller, the child’s body slices space, bouncing from cool brick to grizzled pavement. His entrance smacks with the reality of Harlem. Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Kabakov’s child roams Harlem, searching for artistic ways to discuss the complexities of life.