Chocolat: Drip, Drizzle, Lick
By Stephen Slaughter
Eileen Southern in The Music of Black American wrote; “On the way to the cemetery it was customary to play very slowly and mournfully a dirge, or an ‘old Negro spiritual’ such as ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ but on the return from the cemetery, the band would strike up a rousing, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ or a ragtime such as ‘Didn’t He Ramble.’ Sidney Bechet, the renowned New Orleans jazzman, after observing the celebrations of the jazz funeral, stated, “Music here is as much a part of death as it is of life.”
As such with Chocolat Biennial, a group show that opened at Prairie Gallery last Saturday, November 10th, in Cincinnati’s Northside, “as much a part of death as it is of life.” The show wasn’t as much an exhibition of work by a collection of artists curated around a theme, as it was a tribute to the late, and what I’ve discovered to be, great Brian Joiner, a local artist beloved by many whose talents for building bridges were as great as his ability as a painter and maker.
“… There let the way appear steps unto heav’n All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv’n Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee…”
I went to Prairie with no prior understanding of the artist who originally curated the first Chocolat show 11 years ago, but as I left the street and walked up stairs to the gallery my first encounter with the work and the man was a striking self portrait of a young Brian Joiner done when he was in art school. It was a three quarter body, full-face portrait that was stoic and solemn, confident yet intense, and to its side was the curator, David Rosenthal’s, statement, “Celebrating Brian Joiner’s Curatorial Vision.”
“Chocolat, which has shown twice in the past, first at Keith Mueller’s Flowers and Beyond and most recently at Prairie Gallery in 2010(sic). Prairie will produce this show, co-curated by Pam Myricks, Lennell Myricks and David Rosenthal, in order to honor and celebrate Brian’s curatorial vision. As described by Brian in his curatorial statement, chocolate can be a metaphor for the ability of art, both in its making and consumption by viewers, to provide a means of escape from the present. It can be a form of sensual indulgence which produces a type of euphoria – a separation from the every-day nuts and bolts of life; the realities of family, work and the ever encroaching media.”
The combination of the promise of this vital figure with the statement of his demise set a somber tone as I entered the gallery. It was a harsh juxtaposition that influenced how I began to perceive the work, transforming, for example, William Holodnak’s totems “Cellar Flower” and “Shanty Herring” into funerary markers, Jonathan Sears’ “Relics of the Stillborn” into an homage to decay and Brian Joiner’s own “Chocolate Fish in a Chocolate Sea with Emerald Crucifixes and Ruby Red Slippers” into the artist’s own
plea for repentance. It wasn’t until I met Pam Myricks, co-curator of the show, that the motive of Chocolat became clearer to me. She, as I hear Brian would have done, introduced herself and began regaling me with stories of who and most importantly how he was.
“… Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee…”
Myricks recounts a ready escort to all occasions of art, gentlemanly, protective and jovial. She and her husband Lennell, it should be noted, were Joiner’s major patrons, collectors of his work and most of all, friends. Joiner was not only an artist but also a lover of art and a supporter of the community that produced and appreciated it. David Rosenthal told a story of art marketing, Joiner style; “Brian wouldn’t send out an email to tell you about a show, and this regardless of whether he was in the show or not, he would call you… It was personal for him. He would go down his list, pick up the phone, get into a conversation with you and sometimes rush off to call the next person.” From all accounts Brian Joiner touched the people he met, and bridged boundaries across the fractured and sometimes divided communities of Cincinnati to form a coalition of people who loved and appreciated art as he did. ÆQAI’s Editor, Daniel Brown recounts; “I met Brian J. when he was in his twenties and introduced him around, including to the founders of the Freedom Center, which was, at that time, just a concept. He marketed his talents very well and I was pleased to see his career take off. The early death….. was awful…”
“… Some say this world of trouble Is the only one we need But I’m waiting for that morning When the new world is revealed…”
The stories shared with me of Brian’s life, compassion and graciousness brought me to look at the work of Chocolat for what it is, not a representation of death, but a celebration of life, Brian’s life, and the people he touched and inspired not only with his work, but also through his kindness. None so much in this show represents that ideal greater than the work of Thunder-sky artist Antonio Adams. His pieces: “M&M and Snickers Pack,” “Galaxy and the Stars in Space,” “The New Brian Joiner,” and “Diamonds and Pearls Jewelry” can be considered a collaboration, of sorts, between the two artists. Along with what has been reported as Joiner’s many philanthropic endeavors, he volunteered at Thunder-sky Inc. and befriended Adams there. As a result, upon Joiner’s death, Adams was given access to objects Joiner had been preparing for his own work. Adams’ appropriation of these objects thus turns Joiner’s artifacts into Adams’ talisman. Bejeweled and bespangled, Adams multi media pieces sing with the harmony of both artists, a marriage of technique between Joiner’s more figural, more iconic, more painterly imposition of the third dimension into a pictorial frame, in unison with Adams use of the pieces purely as pieces, sculptural and compositional, folded seamlessly into a new whole. The collaboration, a beautiful duet across realms, is a student’s tribute to his teacher. Another poignant and powerful tribute is the third of three totems produced be William Holodnak: “Reflections of Brian.” Unlike Holodnak’s other totems that are a composition of a variety of found objects rendered neutral by being painted black, “Reflections…” sings loud and proud through a treatment that presents a selection of women’s high heel shoes painted bright, candy apple red in homage to Joiner’s “running ladies.” Here in the gallery the shoes are retired, and the piece suggests that Joiner, like Dorothy and the running women the shoes adorned, has finally come to rest in a place like none other; home.
But what of chocolate, what of the theme of the show that quickly becomes the show’s subtext by virtue of Joiner’s story? Can the original motivation of Chocolat: indulgent distraction, compete with the power of Joiner’s narrative? The answer of course is yes! And as Adams’ and Holodnak’s work celebrates Joiner without chocolate, Cedric Michael Cox, Cynthia Lockhart, Tim McMichael, Anthony Becker, Anissa Lewis, Terence Hammonds, Jonathan Sears, Mark Patfall and Aaron Kent keep to the show’s theme to delightful effect. Cox’s piece: “Nature’s Gift No. 2, Pink Chocolate” is a sensual, sexual scene that has a near naked afroed woman literally milking cocoa beans from a tree, producing, from the milk, yet another tree with
silhouetted naked female figures in sexually suggestive poses. The relationship between seduction and confection is obvious in a piece that could have as easily been entitled “Sexual Chocolate” as “Nature’s Gift.” It’s the only piece in the show so overtly erotic, so suggestive, so titillating standing, ironically, in sharp contrast to Anthony Becker’s “Chocolate Pops” giving proof about how elastic Chocolat actually is. Becker’s work is a treatise in material praxis, the steel sheet, cut, bent, and modeled and the evidence of time mixed with cocoa to obfuscate both its season and method of fabrication. “Chocolate Pops” doesn’t rely on chocolate’s sensual or metaphorical qualities to operate within the theme; in this piece it is merely a trope for the process that will eventually transform it over time: oxidation.
Chocolate’s transformation over time also plays a role in Jonathan Sears’ series “Relics of the Stillborn: A Tribute” where Sears’ adorns hanging plaster fetal pigs first with paint and decals, then with chocolate, with the intent to allow the sun to melt the chocolate away over the course of the show. Sears’ piece plays with both the sensual nature of the material, as the chocolate is designed to drip into a golden trough, and the conceptual, given the intent is to reveal what has been concealed, allowing the work to transform, thereby transforming the gallery over time. But no piece’s transformation or juxtaposition speaks greater than Aaron Kent’s “Rich, Poor” with respect to the elastic notion of Chocolat. Kent’s work is merely the two words, “RICH” and “POOR” presented on heavy parchment. “RICH” spelled out in flowing cursive text made of dark chocolate, “POOR” presented in pedestrian Helvetica made of human fecal matter. The point of the piece is to set up a series of dichotomies between the meaning, presentation and material of each word, and allow those who engage the piece to determine the value inherent in what’s being communicated. Chocolate in Kent’s piece is a vehicle for communicating value in an equation drawn by the texts on the page, not sensual, not sexual but a celebration nonetheless.
The work in the show ranges from the relatively representational through the abstract to the entirely conceptual, from sex to excrement and quite literally everything in between. The talent of the artists to produce both things of beauty and works of contemplation is what makes Chocolat not just a tribute to the late great Brian Joiner, but a celebration of the art and the artists of this community. Chocolat is billed as a Biennial; my hope is that it continues and that the story and legacy of Joiner lives on to challenge and inspire not only the lucky few who will be tapped to participate in future shows, but every person touched by every artist, donor, supporter and gallery goer who should consider themselves, as Brian, an ambassador to the arts. The story of Brian Joiner’s life and death is tragic but this show serves as a celebration to what he represented, so if in some small way my communicating the power of artistry and intellect that exist in Prairie right now allows me to participate in the celebration, let the celebration begin!
“… Oh, when the saints, go marching in Oh, when the saints, go, marching in Lord, how I want to be in that number When the saints go marching in…”