Awol Erizku’s Scorched Earth Policy Spurns Fixed Definitions
Awol Erizku's artwork is an active proliferation. His images and objects have appeared in galleries around the world, adorned N.Y.C. bus stops, and at least one of his photographs of Beyoncé pregnant has attracted as many eyes as any other taken this millennium.
Awol Erizku, Dirty Sprite (Variations on Mud) #2 (2021). Courtesy the artist and Night Gallery. Photo: Ruben Diaz.
But even when his work approaches the iconographic, Erizku's commitment to a Black art that flouts white demands means that anything recognisable in a market-friendly gallery maintains a motion away from fixed definition.
In just a single exhibition, Erizku's unmistakable versioning of photography and sculpture posits a visual vocabulary that propagates multiple meanings in countless directions. Scorched Earth, his latest show at Night Gallery in Los Angeles (18 September–23 October 2021), is full of pieces where one thing refers to another, which may or may not refer to something else.
The first work visitors see is a large print of a flower in vivid close-up, its yellow and red petals beaded with moisture. The piece is called Drippy (all works 2021). Nearby is a diptych, Some Fly, Some Die, with a picture of the moon next to one of a hand holding a jewellery chain attached to a rock with a zipper on it.
A few feet away, on the floor, is Bending in the Wind (Hammons Typebeat): a tree branch, its limbs painted here and there, more zippers stuck all over the sticks. At this point, clear resonances emerge. Bending in the Wind must be in response to David Hammons' Fly Jar (1998), in which twigs are studded with clothing zippers (that is, flies) and poised in glass.
Erizku moves the tiny dynamism of his forebear out into a bigger open. Now, flies have to do with how some die, but also how dripping in jewels is fly. Significance zips around the gallery, sealing and opening the artwork at the same time.
Language and meaning form the fundament of every oppressor's terrain, and Erizku uses them in ways that spurn accession by a dominant power...
There are a lot more pieces. Cam sành (Too Many Damn Flies on the Wall) is a photo of a green orange, dappled with drops of water. Darkest Before Dawn is an installation of a baby's crib packed in blocks of ice, surrounded by chain link fence.
In the three iterations of Dirty Sprite (Variations on Mud), a luridly lit bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup stands behind a smattering of increasingly melted Jolly Rancher candies. Flies, flies, fly, jar, syrup, lean, syrup, drip, jewels, ice, block, crib, chains, links.
It's tempting to say that puns abound, but to call them puns is to refer to a grounded humour from which these sign-plays take flight. 'Contronym' doesn't quite cover it, either, because these aren't only oppositions, they're appositions, counterpoints, allusions, and collusions. They set up tensions that release history's claims on definition.
RBG Tychism is another diptych: on the left, the red, black, and green stripes of the Pan-African flag on the back of someone's shaved head, and on the right, a black DeLorean, the car's doors open, its shadow cast on a wall with a projection of outer space planets.
'Tychism' is the Peircean philosophical proposition that absolutely indeterminate chance is a constitutive factor of the universe—but that doesn't mean that one thing doesn't lead to another. Is the DeLorean back from another future than the one the present makes? Does 'RBG' have anything to do with some dead justice?
Maybe these questions indicate how ridiculous it is to try to locate each signifying element and lock it in place, to serve some imagined position of total knowledge over the whole exhibition. Erizku's art's meaning is on the move between what is seen and what is known, so that it must escape me.
The transitory relations that emerge from the in- and ex-tended positioning of like and unlike things are a poesis that connects to, through, and past its direct references. Language and meaning form the fundament of every oppressor's terrain, and Erizku uses them in ways that spurn accession by a dominant power—that's his deployment of a scorched earth policy.
To hell with the white art critic who tries to capture the signs and chart them for the history that refuses to end. But even that interpretation is porous and incomplete: it's also that Scorched Earth is a collection of vibrant images and objects in Los Angeles, where fires burn and burn again. Not all of them mean the same thing. —[O]