In Brooklyn-based artist Dave McKenzie's tantalizing first solo show "Screen Doors on Submarines," our conversation about race spins and spins like a broken record, our thinking trapped in cycles and rituals like a buggy program stuck in a loop. The work on display at downtown Los Angeles' REDCAT gallery through June 15 doesn't necessarily show us a way out of those loops, but McKenzie is young man (31), and his show is a strong solo debut that marks him as an artist to watch. With time his work might just give us some clues as how to get unstuck – provided, of course he doesn't fall into one of those pesky grooves he so effectively depicts.
Like Kehinde Wiley, McKenzie works with popular culture as a raw material. But unlike Wiley, with his wry, courtly depictions of black men heroically embodying a kind of imperial hip-hop ideal, McKenzie turns his back on luxe, collectible surfaces in order to brood a bit on the contradictions inherent to media, entertainment and our own folk mythology. In McKenzie's current show, things don't so much fall apart as they spin off on their own stubborn trajectories.
McKenzie's main subject has usually been himself, which is to say, his work usually revolves around a regular-enough seeming black man stepping in and out of his allotted roles. His work is conceptual, and so McKenzie has performed stunts like dance in a gallery for hours trying to entice museum-goers to join him, or wander around Harlem wearing a giant Bill Clinton mask collecting reactions. (This was back when Bill first moved Uptown and was still the first black president of these United States.) The work on display at REDCAT is less reliant on McKenzie's physical presence but still feels intimately tied to him. It's a solo-debut at a hip space, meaning McKenzie's had the lucky break of being plucked out of the post-art school pack, but there's a melancholy undercurrent of hard-won wisdom to the proceedings, McKenzie seemingly looking at his world and career and asking "now what?"
There are no submarines in the show, but there is a pair of screen doors leaning against a wall, the words "SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?" cut into the metal mesh. The piece feels like a triple meditation on frustrations that are as much racial as they are creative. First it occurs to you that the openings cut into the screen by the letters have damaged the doors and rendered them porous and useless. But then you remember the show's opening conceit – screen doors on submarines! – and you think that even if these doors were whole they'd not only serve no real purpose but sink the boat. All the while you picture someone standing at the doorway dithering about whether to stay or go, while water (flood water? fame? stereotype?) rushes in and pools around their ankles.
The screen doors encapsulate the kinds of mental turns and "stuckness" McKenzie is interested in exploring. That experience of being stuck in a maddening, dangerous loop recurs throughout "Submarines." A video of McKenzie dancing at the Studio Museum in Harlem re-plays the same recurring step in potentially seizure-inducing flashes. In another piece a broken slide projector is stuck on a single, fuzzy slide, but nonetheless makes clicking and shifting noises as if projecting happily away. In another piece a stack of nonsense form-letters from Bill Clinton and George Bush pere sit stacked on a table, the text managing to sound official and congratulatory even as the words themselves are jumbled.
Dave McKenzie, While Supplies Last, 2003, polyresin, 6 1/2 x 2 x 2 inches and giveaway event. Installation view, SculptureCenter, Long Island City.
On another wall, the image of a set for a local news broadcast is projected in rich, electronic colors, only the soundstage depicted has been wiped clean of people, news and meaning. The only things left are branding – NEWS 4 NBC – and technology. The green screen backgrounds are visible but blank, and an anchor's chair spins absently and endlessly in the foreground, half tumbleweed, half broken record. Next to the projected, zombie news room, old-fashioned rabbit-ear television antennas are attached to the wall, each one festooned with metal letters like urban telephone posts strung with old sneakers. Here and there you think you might be able to make out a word – AIDS, OUT, maybe HARLEM – but overall the letters are too mashed together to read, their content cryptic and out of reach.
In another, news-related piece called "Yesterday's Newspaper," an actual, day-old New York Times is deposited on a wooden block every morning, the daily cycles of news and delivery reduced to a repetitive habit performed first-thing-first every day by some faceless, likely low-status gallery assistant. I fought the impulse to reach out and read the paper until I realized it was all yesterday's news; what was there to read?
In what will likely be remembered as the show's signature piece, a vintage-seeming boom-box sits before a flattened cardboard refrigerator box in classic break-dancing formation. Instead of old school beats, though, every few minutes the same snippet of Barack Obama's "Audacity of Hope" speech blares out of the speakers, McKenzie playing the soaring phrases about the hope of the slave and the belief "in things not seen" over and over. McKenzie seems to be onboard the hope train in general but the boom box piece is also deeply ambivalent. It feels expectant, as if at any moment someone amazing and talented could claim the empty, waiting stage and dazzle us. But after a few minutes of waiting and listening, you start to wonder would it would be like to actually dance on that stage, forced to repeat the same crowd-pleasing, head-spin or twirl ad nauseum.
We live in the best of times and the worst of times that boom box piece seems to be saying. No stage can be denied us, whether it's the do-it-yourself platform of a card-board box or a podium bearing the presidential seal. But Dave McKenzie is also saying the flipside of that access is that there's no stage that can't become a prison under the right, wrong circumstances. Do the same thing over and over and even victory can be a kind of hell.
Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles-based writer.