Something curious happens when you stand inside the gallery where Codex, an exhibit of new work by New York-based artist Sanford Biggers, is housed at the Ringling Museum of Art. Most galleries (for modern and contemporary art, at least) are conceived as a kind of no-space; they’re designed to fade from attention. In contrast, this gallery is punctuated with sculptural clouds, dangling from the ceiling and jutting out of walls, and paintings that display shapes suggestive of stellar constellations. A visitor wanders among them as if inside a virtual somewhere lined with big square portals.
Chalk that sense of space up to Biggers’ resumé as an artist who works more often than not in the medium of installation. The eight painted quilts on view at the Ringling — occasioned by the Greenfield Prize, which Biggers won in 2010 (more about it below) — are the first paintings he’s exhibited in 15 years, according to the Greenfield Prize blog. The puffy clouds, assembled from clumps of raw cotton, aren’t labeled as artworks but serve as decisive decor in the sense that they shape a visitor’s experience of the paintings.
A painting is rarely just a painting, and these are slipperier than most. Biggers was inspired to create them by a vision of Harriet Tubman leading soon-to-be-liberated slaves through the Underground Railroad with stars as directional pointers and quilts hung in safe house windows as signals of welcome or warning. He has taken the quilts, which were donated to him by descendants of slaves, and painted, stenciled and collaged fabric on top of them. Thus each object already possesses a compelling historical identity as a quilt — a thing invested with code on multiple levels, from the aesthetic communication of its elegant geometry to its possible use as a signal to traveling freedom seekers.
Through his additions, Biggers transforms the quilts into objects that shift among other states — painting, map, portal and even text. In “Quilt #7,” he compiles an abstract sky from three elements — a patch of black spray paint sprinkled with glitter, a neon-orange triangle, and curlicue clouds reminiscent of antique Chinese vase painting, cut from blue gingham fabric and layered atop a triangle-patterned quilt.
Through the neon triangle march a set of silhouetted footprints — think Andy Warhol’s “Dance Diagrams” — one large, distorted footprint in the painting’s foreground emblazoned in gold. (Go ahead, step inside and make the journey, it beckons.) And in the painting’s upper right corner sits one of Biggers’ most deftly wielded and intriguing symbols: a flower shape composed of petals that are identical floor maps of a commercial slave ship illustrating maximal layout of bodies. In his hands, the shape is an unforgettably ambiguous emblem. Appliquéd onto “Quilt #7” (one of several paintings it appears in), it looks like a red star or sun but also suggests a badge of membership, perhaps the visual calling card of a society of star-charting abolitionists, from the past … or the future.
Along with Tubman, Sun Ra — the jazz musician who imagined an alternate black reality of interplanetary travel and spiritual transcendence — might be proposed as a patron saint for the paintings. There’s more than a whiff of science fiction in their combinations of stellar geometry and symbolic mash-ups.
Atop “Quilt #9 (Cheshire),” Biggers centers another symbol that he uses recurrently in his work, a huge grin evocative of both minstrel show blackface and the Cheshire Cat. Sprouting beams of light from behind a haze of whitewash, the grin takes on shades of divinity in this work, conjuring a god-like presence at once creepy and comforting. And it’s those cotton clouds — crafted from a material redolent of slavery and lit to appear as if suspended in sunshine — that make that grin seem eerily present in the gallery.
In a 2010 interview with Whitehot Magazine, Biggers described his goal as making work that “is supposed to engage you in such a way that it makes you spend more than the average three seconds to look at it.”
Art that aspires to address history is often didactic. Thankfully, Biggers is far too adept a manipulator of signs to let that happen, instead crafting ambiguous objects that offer deeply gratifying opportunities to reflect.
The Codex exhibit owes its existence to the Greenfield Prize, an annual award given to an individual artist jointly by the Greenfield Foundation of Philadelphia and the Hermitage artist retreat on Manasota Key, just under an hour’s drive south of Sarasota. The prize was created in 2008 at the instigation of foundation founders and longtime Sarasota residents Bob and Louise Greenfield.
Since selecting Biggers in 2010, the foundation has opted to consider visual artists for the prize as well as practitioners of theater and music, rotating the award between genres every three years. That means the 2013 award, scheduled to be announced next April, will go to a visual artist; the 2012 winner was pianist and composer Vijay Iyer.
In addition to a six-week residency at the Hermitage’s beach-front property, the prize provides the winner with a $30,000 commission for a new work and an occasion (slash obligation) to showcase the work publicly. The recipient may take up to two years following the award to complete the work, and he/she has as much time to spend residency days at Hermitage, which unlike many artist retreats does not require continuous residence during the allotted time. In recognition that successful mid-career artists tend to be too busy to take six weeks off, the residency can be divided into multiple returns to the Hermitage.
“It’s like coming home to their beach house,” says Patricia Caswell, who administrates the Greenfield Prize at the Hermitage.
Call the prize an ingenious way to lure world-class talent to Florida’s Gulf Coast. (Around 60 other artists also visit the Hermitage for invitation-only residencies per year — they just don’t get the $30,000 commission or exhibit.) In the meantime, regional audiences — notorious for preferring sand and sun to dim museum and concert hall interiors — benefit from the influx.
On a cloudy day, anyway.