Chavis Heights is perhaps a less familiar name to the paper's readers. For recent news about the future of the troubled public housing complex, you might have to pick up a copy of The Carolinian, a Raleigh-based paper serving the Triangle's African-American community. Located in Southeast Raleigh near Ligon Middle School, Chavis Heights is the latest Triangle public housing development--after Durham's Few Gardens and Raleigh's Halifax Court--to be targeted for demolition using grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Like Halifax Court, the 62-year-old Chavis Heights apartments are full of asbestos and lead-based paint. Air conditioning is nonexistent, heat unreliable. And the residents of these crumbling complexes have been subject to the depredations of criminals: Before it was torn down, police logged 1,500 calls to 300 apartments at Halifax Court in one year. To know these buildings and neighborhoods is not necessarily to love them.
Raleigh artist André Leon Gray sees things a little differently, however.
To Gray, who lives near Chavis Heights, the lack of mainstream media coverage of the neighborhood's plight is as much an issue as is the future of public housing in general. The residents who will be displaced by the demolition of Chavis Heights are more than the victims or perpetrators of crime, he says. Among other things, they're victims of the popular media's lack of interest in the poor.
It's an argument that has achieved the status of truism, but it's one that Gray defamiliarizes in Ghetto Fabolous [sic] 2002, his current exhibition of multimedia works at the Raleigh restaurant/bar Humble Pie, by employing the visual language of pop culture to examine the history of the urban poor. His collection of paintings and assemblages at Humble Pie focuses in part on the mythic status of black men in our culture, commenting on everything from basketball to hip hop, from macking to racial profiling.
With only nine pieces, including seven older works and two new paintings created specifically for this exhibition, the 32-year-old artist shows his evolution from chronicler of African-American history to postmodernist reporter.
The assemblage "Perpetual Looting of the Mind (cui bono)," for instance, consists of a weathered window frame divided into four panes, each of which contains behind it the image of a black man or woman, seemingly cut from a magazine, like a paper doll. In one of the four panes, a black man is nailed--once through the forehead and again through each foot--to the edges of an unpainted frame placed within the pane, as if the figure were first crucified, then displayed in a museum or gallery. The man is holding a sign that reads, "I'm not just a number," while a series of enumerations ("First to die in a sci-fi," "3/5 a man," "40 acres," "intelligence quotient," "second class citizen," and so on) are etched in ink on the windowpane, behind which the cutout is exhibited against a piece of corrugated cardboard. Although the numbers are mostly historical allusions, they also refer obliquely to mainstream news reporting, in which, Gray might be arguing, black men are represented as statistics, and not as individuals.
Gray frames some of the works in this exhibition with pieces of a picket fence, alternately whitewashed or painted black. This compulsion to fashion found-art frames not only about the perimeter of his pieces but also within the work itself--as in "Perpetual Looting of the Mind (cui bono)"--reveals an artist entering a formalist approach through the back door. Experience suggests that no sooner does an artist discover this trend in his own work than he begins to react against it ("containment" of creative energies seeming, to a young artist, a fate worse than death), so it will be interesting to see what route Gray follows in the near future.
Three works that may hint at that direction are the more subtly allusive multimedia paintings "tune in/tune out (gentrification will not be televised)," "The Negrotarian" and "jimCROWNasium." The latter work incorporates a carefully dismantled basketball reimagined as a gymnasium fan (above which the painted word "Air" refers to both the fan's use and to Air Jordan court shoes), placed against an actual section of old gymnasium flooring. Xs and Os suggesting plays scribbled on a coach's chalkboard form a semicircle under the basketball, while afro picks and what appear to be cowrie shells (once a form of African currency) edge the bottom of the painting. The picks and the stars stamped on the Wilson basketball are also incorporated in the two newer works, which take Gray out of the "urban folk artist" mode of "jimCROWNasium" and into the realm of pop art. "tune in/tune out," which advertises "Thug Life" with the marketing tag "As seen on TV," and "The Negrotarian," with it clip-art Caucasian announcing "Some of my best friends are ghetto" and its incorporation of a Ghetto Slang for Dummies book, draw a parallel between plantation owners' attempts to apprehend the private language slaves developed to thwart their masters, and the mainstreaming of hip-hop vernacular. Likewise, when Gray, in "tune in/tune out," shows a white man saying "Downtown livin' is off the heezy fo' sheezy," it's not too much of a stretch to draw another parallel to the coded language of downtown developers ("planned development district," "urban enterprise zones," "gentrification," "mixed-use development"), which could be imagined as a private language developed by today's "masters" to enslave the urban poor and exploit the middle class.
While the two new paintings Gray brought to his Humble Pie show demonstrate how difficult it is to skim anything new off the slick surface of pop art, Gray's earlier work, with its "urban folk artist" sensibility, develops an idea worth returning to. In these works Gray takes the slogan "The personal is political," locates it on the continuum of African-American history, infuses it with African motifs, and represents it with found objects ritualistically displayed. The result is work utterly unique in the Triangle arts community.
Ghetto Fabolous, despite its title, is a modest show, presented unassumingly, its pieces dispersed widely throughout the converted warehouse space. But it displays an urban artist coming into his own, in a city that has yet to decide what it means to be urban. Unfortunately, shown in the self-consciously hip Humble Pie, Gray's work--which actually suggests solutions to the problems it highlights--is preaching to the choir. Work that so successfully defamiliarizes common artifacts and repositions shopworn arguments about city living deserves to reach a wider audience.
In the meantime, the application for a grant to demolish Chavis Heights, relocate its residents and build new public housing, is due at the HUD offices in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 29. Gray's next exhibition will be at Sandspur Studios in downtown Raleigh this December. At the same time that Raleigh's Housing Authority will be presenting its pitch for a little more ghetto blasting, the city's postmodernist "urban folk artist" may be mounting his counter-argument.