Sanford Biggers Goes Bigger in Brooklyn and Queens 

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Sanford Biggers brings disparate signifiers into surprisingly cohesive harmony in his work, incorporating imagery evocative of the antebellum South, contemporary Americana, canonic fairy tales, Caribbean mysticism, circus imagery and what Tricia Rose would surely call "afro-futurism." As curator Eugenie Tsai writes in the catalogue essay for Biggers' Brooklyn Museum survey, he prefers "the dynamic, synthesizing terms of 'both/and' rather than the more straightforward, categorical terms of 'either/or.'" That exhibition and a concurrent show of new work at SculptureCenter demonstrate the increasingly sophisticated (and hyphenated) lexicon that Biggers commands.

At the Brooklyn Museum, Sweet Funk—An Introspective (through January 8) offers a 13-work, nine-year survey of Biggers' videos, sculptures, photos and installations. Its most frequently recurring motifs, pianos and trees, meet spectacularly in the show's central work, "Blossom" (2007): a baby grand piano, through whose center a large tree seems to have grown, and which intermittently plays Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit." It's a funny combination of objects, but the song's condemnation of racial violence adds gravity to its whimsy, as does the brightly smiling, minstrel show makeup-evoking sculpture "Cheshire" (2008) hanging far above. Biggers' reclamation of the racially charged symbol of the tree—which continues to connote lynchings in the work of, say, Kara Walker or Hank Willis Thomas—gives way to more multifaceted works like two patched-together quilts depicting constellations and the two-channel video "Shuffle (The Carnival Within)" (all 2009). These pieces layer atop the foregoing racial subjects allusions to astrology, carnivals, circuses, Afro Caribbean religions and the broader diasporan vision that characterizes his latest work.

At SculptureCenter, six new large-scale pieces make up Cosmic Voodoo Circus (through November 28). Biggers begins with monumental subversions of his most ubiquitous images, first with the dead-looking foam tree "Barren" (2007) in the institution's courtyard, and then with the massive toppled image of the lightbulb-toothed, red-lipped smile in "Cheshire (On Tilt)" (2010-11). The exhibition's centerpiece, the 20-minute video "Shake" (2011), finds the character from "Shuffle (The Carnival Within)" at the Brooklyn Museum—dreadlocked Brazilian choreographer Ricardo Castillo wearing bright red pants and royal blue frock coat—emerging from backwards-rolling waves. His exploration of Brazilian favelas takes a surreal turn after he steals a quilt from a funeral home and visits a deserted nightclub. His id-like double—identical save for more extremely stylized period garb, silver knee-high platform boots and matching clown makeup—wanders an opulent plantation estate before returning to the sea. With Castillo's cosmic, post-colonial clown figure flashing a beaming Cheshire smile, Biggers juggles an ever-expanding grab-bag of references in these playful, elegant, melancholy and ambiguous new works.

Slideshow
Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum and SculptureCenter
Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum and SculptureCenter Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum and SculptureCenter Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum and SculptureCenter Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum and SculptureCenter Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum and SculptureCenter Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum and SculptureCenter Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum and SculptureCenter Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum and SculptureCenter

Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum and SculptureCenter

The Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist has simultaneous shows at two major outerborough institutions.

By Benjamin Sutton

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(Artworks courtesy the artist; photos by the author.)

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