Negrogotika = romantizam + nadrealizam + horror + pornografija + gospel + metal + rani nijemi film.
In the Belly of the ShipParaontological Blackness and Sonic Abjection in the Music of M. Lamar
M. Lamar is an artist whose work in music and performance straddles the genres of gospel, opera, punk, goth, and metal and blues traditions. While these sources may seem broad-ranging and disparate, Lamar has found a way to synthesize them into a cohesive musical, political and aesthetic statement. Connecting the virtuosity of operatic voice to that of the gospel soloist, goth’s dark theatricality to operatic grandeur, the mournfulness of the blues to punk’s political agendas, Lamar seeks to understand how colonial and plantation narratives about gender and race underlie daily life in the US.
The result of this fusion is vocals that haunt, lyrics that expose endemic problems, and performances of baroque grandiosity that point to capitalist excesses. Through an exhibition at PARTICIPANT INC last summer and a recent performance at Issue Project Room last month, Lamar has produced a series of short videos, prints, and sculpture to accompany his songs, with the videos to be consolidated into a longer film tentatively called Surveillance, Punishment and the Black Psyche, currently in production.
Risa Puleo How are you?
M. Lamar I’m frustrated. How are you?
RP I’m upset. I just came from a conversation about how people living with HIV are criminalized. Michael Johnson, a young man in Missouri, was recently sentenced to 30.5 years in prison for allegedly transmitting and “exposing” others to HIV, though there is no evidence to prove this.
ML How do they justify that? It’s not legal!
RP If your jury includes a group of conservative people who think the only acceptable sex is missionary within the confines of marriage, then a sex life filled with other kinds of sex acts with multiple partners is constructed as evidence of irresponsibility. This is how he was constructed as a threat to public safety.
ML But it’s a fiction though! Related to the imagined over-sexualization of the black man since plantation times.
RP Since the medieval ages, at least! When Christians defined themselves against Jews and Muslims by projecting sodomitical sex acts.
So now that we’re both upset… this is a great segue into your work, because self-making and world-making against fictions of black masculinity and sexuality are really important aspects of what you do.
ML It is. The only way you can create different kinds of possibilities within this current political and cultural context is to imagine them. The question is how we imagine. In my process there has to be an acknowledgment of what has happened to people—black people, in my case. One can’t be delusional. Many people walk around in a haze believing that horrible stuff isn’t happening all the time. We still have very serious situations in prisons, with poverty. I think fully acknowledging that and trying to make a fully emancipated self—who is aware of the past but is also trying to make a difference in the present and future—is important. I find a lot of solace in my own practice; it enables me to go on. It’s a question of survival for me, this world-making, imagining the possibilities for a different kind of self and fighting for that, too.
We can just stop there in a way. This is what I’m trying to do.
I mean, I’m frustrated. As I enter a kind of public sphere, people are wanting to put me in an identity box.
RP What are the words you get tagged with?
ML I get invited to show a lot with transgender people, and I am not transgender. I’ve never said that I am. It’s confusing to me as someone who is trying desperately to liberate himself from all these forces. The difficulty of stepping outside the status quo is that your life is more difficult. Transgender identities are mainstream right now, but I think in terms of representation, people don’t seem to be stepping outside of a binary presentation. I just don’t think that that’s liberatory. Even as we push against all these hegemonic forces, there still seems to be a status quo that reinserts itself, because under capitalism you need a new take on something. So the new take on femininity is trans femininity. The new take on masculinity is trans masculinity, but the hegemony is still in place, nothing has been dismantled. On one level if we acknowledge that transness is inherently hegemonic, maybe we can get to something truly radical and challenge these kinds of constructions.
RP What are the words that you prefer?
ML I consistently describe myself as a “NEGROGOTHIC devil-worshipping free black man in the blues tradition.” I’ve been really loud about that, but people want to understand my identity by some preexisting script. I’m trying to write my own script. That’s where the frustration comes from, where you’re constantly trying to construct yourself and people are pushing you back. We were saying this yesterday: liberation isn’t something you do and you’re done. It’s a constant fight.
But I also reject notions of fixity. I am an artist. I am a NEGROGOTHIC, devil worshipping, free black man in the blues tradition. Those are the things I am now. I have this trouble with identity as a noun—even the notion of sexual orientation. The idea that there is one is a fallacy. Our sexual orientation changes and mutates throughout our lives. I use the term “practicing homosexual,” and I reject the notion of being gay. It’s all very bourgeois and white. I like the idea of being queer, or queerness as a verb rather than as a noun. Sex and sexuality is a thing that you do, not who you are—it’s not ontology. But fucking, I do that. So what? It’s a very reductive thing, to define people according to sexuality. It’s a very Western, scientific thing, the desire to name something and put it in a box. I just reject the names that aren’t my own, the names I haven’t given to myself.
RP You’ve also been making a lot of work recently that defies identifiers: music that crosses blues, opera, goth, punk, metal, and gospel traditions; performances on stage and for videos and still images.
RP Can you tell me more about Tree of Blood?
ML There’s lots of imagery about the dead rising up. I don’t want to be done with the dead. There is a finality—especially if you’re not a Christian—with death. The Christian tradition invests in an afterlife. The African tradition does too. A lot of spiritual music is about death, meaning that you’re going to die at some point, so this will be over. Really, my investment in this NEGROGOTHIC, devil-worshipping, free black man blues tradition is about a rejection of that. The blues began to form out of emancipation. It was a rejection of the enforced Christianity that was a part of slavery.
RP What dead do you want to speak to?
ML I particularly want to have a conversation with those we have lost in struggle. Sandra Bland, the black woman stopped by the police for some routine traffic violation in Texas who died in jail three days later, is a freedom fighter and a revolutionary. To me, the video of her not cow-towing to the police—being very defiant, knowing that she was involved in Black Lives Matter, knowing that she could die—is so moving. It’s like a Biggie Smalls “ready to die” moment. I don’t want to accept that she isn’t always going to be speaking to those of us who are lovers of justice. Or that Martin Luther King or Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown or Emmett Till or Emmett Till’s mother won’t always be the legacies.
RP On one hand you’re talking about memorialization, but really you’re talking about conjuring, incantation, spirit-to-spirit communication between the embodied and disembodied souls.
ML I’m very interested in ideas of possession, of being a vessel. I think the best singers, dancers and actors are the people who become conduits for spirits, energy channeling. Channeling and possession can’t be done when the ego is in the way. You have to let that go for stuff to move through you. I really believe that. Anthony Paul Farley has been writing about zombies relative to race. The dead can’t sing, but we know that the dead are singing to us all the time through spirituals and black music. If the dead can’t sing then maybe they’re just asleep, is what Farley says. And if they’re sleeping there’s always the possibility of awakening. A lot of Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland, is about a certain kind of awakening. It’s very exciting. Even if it’s squashed, and all evidence suggests that it will be extinguished as a movement, at least we’re going to go out fighting.
RP Grief is an enormous political force motivating action right now. And there is a renegotiation of how people are reacting to fear, not being terrorized into submission.
ML The song that I wrote, “They Hung Her on the Deck” in Speculum Orum, is about the whipping of a black woman on a slave ship to install fear. It’s connected to a famous illustration. It’s a profoundly liberating moment to not be a afraid. I’ve been stopped by the police many times. I have been very much afraid. I haven’t been ready to die like Sandra was or Biggie, although I don’t think Biggie was ready then to die. I’ve been very afraid, and I think a moment in emancipation was about not being afraid. Marcus Garvey’s people would march with signs that said, “We are not afraid.” Malcolm X would talk about not being afraid. That’s one of the ways black people have been terrorized, with lynching. Lynching was about creating fear to keep the rest of the Negroes in line. In that Nina Simone documentary on Netflix, someone asks her, “What does freedom mean to you?” And she says, “No fear.” That sentiment means so much to me.
There’s always this mourning happening in my work. How do you grapple with profound loss and profound devastation? But in this new phase in my work, I’m trying to create a revolutionary impulse, what Cornel West calls “a black prophetic fire.” It’s about a longing to connect deeply with those we’ve lost. It’s a longing to remake the world anew. Really this new show at PS1 is about trying to put yourself back together. I’m in pieces.
RP This is kind of the opposite impulse of your song, “I’m Trying To Leave My Body,” which is about dissociation. You’re speaking about reintegration spiritually and physically.
ML If a body’s been traumatized, one has to go some place else. “I’m just trying to put myself back together, I’m walking around in pieces.” Many of us are walking around fragmented or dismembered. Parts of our spirits, our psyches, our bodies, are hanging off, barely there. Many of us are walking around decapitated, not whole selves. There is also a very literal meaning of “being in pieces.” I was reading the story of this one man who survived lynching. He had been castrated, and he continued to live in this dismembered state.
RP This relates to the story Willie Francis in the narrative for Surveillance, Punishment and the Black Psyche, about another man who survived an execution.
ML Surveillance, Punishment and the Black Psyche is loosely based on the story of Willie Francis. I say loosely because I had to make up a lot of facts, because much of his story is unknown. What we do know is that they attempted to execute him in 1946 and it didn’t work, because the electric chair was installed improperly. Then the NAACP descended upon St. Martinville, Louisiana. He was allegedly having a sexual relationship with the man he was accused of killing, a 53-year old pharmacist, a white man. Willie Francis would have been 14 or 15 years old at the time. I was trying to imagine what interracial homosexual dynamics look like in plantation times or under Jim Crow. What did their relationship look like? There are always questions of consent when someone is underage, or in bondage in slavery, but he didn’t seem coerced. Maybe he was manipulated. Maybe he was paid. We just don’t know. I was trying to understand what the dynamic must have been when someone in bondage desires the touch of a white man.
RP The way you reconfigure Mapplethorpe’s image (Self-portrait with Whip) in the video made me think about how BDSM allows people to recreate these same master-slave scenarios with awareness and consent. It’s the other side of the possible dynamic you’re describing, where the power inequity between a black boy and white man in Louisiana of the 1940s is so pronounced. For instance, in the film The Night Porter, the relationship that happens between a SS officer and a Jewish woman in a concentration camp, when recreated by the same officer and same woman outside the camp after the war, carries all the traumatic weight of their shared history.
ML Mapplethorpe was obsessed with black men, and that’s no secret. We seem to be some symbol of his transgression, as if he was a radical, white male artist because he was daring to be fucked by “big, black cock.” He’s reenacting a white supremacist fantasy, what I call plantation fantasy, imagining black people as overly-sexualized with enormous genitalia—black women and men. White people have this incredible fantasy world around the sexuality of black people. By casting Mapplethorpe as plantation master, I’m trying to give back this construction of the white supremacist imagination. It’s yours, you made it, here it is. I don’t want this anymore. I’m trying not to be didactic in the work, but I don’t want this. I don’t want this thing placed on my body.
RP Thinking about Michael Johnson’s case in Missouri; he was a wrestler using the name “Tiger Mandingo,” referring to the West African people imported to the American South as slaves, whose name has become an equivalent for “big, black cock.” This image, which he participated in constructing, worked in the minds of the people he hooked up with and against him in court.
ML We’ve all internalized white supremacy. Even if you’re a black person only engaging in sex with black people you still deal with this, because we all have that stuff going on. Black masculinity gets constructed in very particular ways, and many men like playing that role. There can be something enjoyable about that for sure, but we won’t be truly liberated until we can move into a different place and embrace different parts of black masculinity. That’s why I get really frustrated when people want to say that I’m transgender, and I say: No, I’m a black man, and black men look all kinds of ways and exist in all kinds of different spheres. I want to proclaim that proudly and also claim these different kinds of ways of existing as a black man.
RP Your images don’t look like Mapplethorpe’s images of black men though. There’s not a lot of variation in how he wants them to look.
ML I placed my head on top of his collage Man in a Polyester Suit. It’s a decapitated man—the most important thing about that image is it’s decapitation. This was the cover of my 2010 cassette tape, Negro Gothic, and the first time I used a whip. I replaced the penis with a whip, making it a phallic object. I play with the etymology of the word “cracka’,” which comes from “whip-cracker.” I wanted to show how the black penis is a construction of the white imagination. For the record, black penises aren’t any bigger than any other penises. But it’s this power that it’s being given, and so I made it a whip—again this construction that I wanted to give back.
RP In addition to critical race and queer theory, you’re also talking about punk politics. Punk is about living your politics at every level of life: what you eat or put in your body, non-conforming dress and presentation, staking a position against capitalism and patriarchy and oppression. What was great about show-space was the way that everyone talked about these things. This is an ethos that’s missing these days, instead of all this empty chatter.
ML I was first politically radicalized when I was 15, 16, 17. I would go to punk shows and they would pass out lyrics for songs about being vegan, or the horrible things they do to animals, or patriarchy. That stuff to me was really formative; punk rock shows are so politicized. They’re an on-the-ground kind of activism. Like having lots of straight white men talking about patriarchy in public, asking, “What does sexism look like? What does misogyny look like?” I think it’s more important to talk about these things in groups of men by ourselves instead of only when women are present. It’s like talking about racism only when a black person is present. Patriarchy has no gender, but we can’t only put that onto women, or racism onto black people. It’s not only the job of women or people of color to end this.
RP It’s like you were saying about music being a spiritual force, it can also be a political force.
ML Cornel West recently said that black music is in a state of decline, that hip-hop is brilliant but investing in the charismatic front person as opposed to groups of people harmonizing. What does that mean politically? It supports a certain kind of American individualism versus a collectivity. The operatic diva is a figure I’m invested in as a trope, but she’s the same thing. What’s most compelling to me about Black Lives Matter is that it’s a movement with black women at the forefront, not about a charismatic male leader. There’s no Al Sharpton or Martin Luther King type. It’s a different kind of model, and it’s about a different kind of awakening.
RP Punk is a middle ground between the front man and the harmonizing group. It’s about individuals operating within a group as individuals while thinking about group concerns.
ML I credit my relationship with my boyfriend for turning me away from the need to be a loud, aggressive person fronting the band. A year into the relationship I wanted more intimacy with an audience. I think it was directly related to feeling loved for the first time in my life. In terms of revolutionary possibilities, all the deep people in the tradition of Martin Luther King talk about love as an action that can do—that has the ability to change a life and change political struggle. Love is the most enabling thing in terms of your life. It means you can proceed from a stronger position. I believe deeply in love. I’m a deeply romantic person. But I also believe in justice. Justice and love, what else is there? Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore is a line from Puccini’s Tosca when she goes to kill Scarpia, the man who raped her, and she asks god, “Why did you allowthese things to happened to me? I’ve lived for art, I’ve lived for love.” I really like this, I’ve lived for art, I’ve lived for love. But for me those things are caught up in questions of justice. -
Standing before a 9-foot-tall contraption he calls "The Penis Guillotine," artist M. Lamar raises its blade with a cord, pauses it in the air for dramatic effect, then releases the metal with a sudden exclamation. The sound of steel crashing into wood (thwatt!) echoes around the San Francisco gallery that's exhibiting Lamar's artwork, and he lets out the kind of Oscar Wilde-like comment for which he is known: "I like playing with that."
An African-American intellectual, composer, and artistic provocateur who analyzes sex and race in society, Lamar wears spiky leather jackets and gloves, heavy eye shadow and lipstick, and hair that is straight and shoulder-length. Lamar looks, sounds, and acts like few other people in the art world, exemplified by his video Badass Nigga, the Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero Remix. One of Lamar's "fun songs," it opens with Lamar sitting and reading a trio of heavyweight books — The Cornel West Reader, which compiles the writings of the Princeton professor; Beloved, by novelist Toni Morrison; and The Phenomenology of Spirit, the German philosopher Hegel's magnum opus — before Lamar gets up and puts two naked white men into a pillory that clamps their heads and hands. In stylish, smoke-filled black and white footage that is slowed down and sped up in key scenes, Lamar sings in a beautiful falsetto (a la Sylvester) as he forces the men to read his tomes and begins to whip them in the face. "I'm a badass nigga with a badass attitude," Lamar croons, accompanied by piano and dissonant instruments in a song that is catchy, sprawling, and almost unclassifiable. "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you."
Badass Nigga, the Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero Remix is one of the videos that screens in "Negrogothic," a new exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute's Walter and McBean Galleries that's a homecoming for Lamar, who got his bachelor's degree at the school about a decade ago before moving to the East Coast to attend Yale's School of Art sculpture program. Lamar won't say what year he graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute. He won't give his exact age. He won't let a visitor take his photo. Lamar dislikes being labeled by others, and he rejects the term "gay" as a personal descriptor. "I don't describe myself as a gay, black man — I describe myself as 'a practicing homosexual.' 'Homosexual' is about the act. 'Gay' is a cultural thing. I'm much more interested in the act than the culture," he says.
A running motif of "Negrogothic" is the whip and an examination of celebrated photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose portfolio included many images of naked black men who were bent over or shown in bondage or posing with their phalluses. Mapplethorpe, Lamar says, stereotyped and misunderstood African-American men — even as Mapplethorpe was heralded as a ground-breaking image-maker. Generations of white society have, consciously and unconsciously, sexualized and objectified the black penis, says Lamar, whose art spotlights that historic fixation by reversing the dominant roles. In stills like Mapplethorpe's Whip VII The Whip Crackers, Lamar wears a dark full-length robe as he inserts a whip into the rectums of white men. Lamar is the overseer. Lamar dictates what goes where with participants who volunteer their bodies to him. There's no coercion in Lamar's artwork, even as he plays with positions of power. Genres of pornography consumed by whites are devoted to black men, which Lamar relates to lynching. Lamar's art, he says, plays off of these market demands.
"Having this black body and my black penis — on one level, I just keep writing songs about my cock," Lamar says, laughing. Turning serious, he says: "This 'Negrogothic' thing is located for me in the schlocky goth thing and in the real-life experience of black people and the horror of it. It's almost like indulging in the horror ... So much a thing of lynching was cutting off black cocks, and [the lynchers] would pickle those cocks. They'd force the lynched man to eat his penis before he died. They'd cut it off, pickle it, photograph it, sell the photographs.
"Black men are dealing with the sexual ramifications of lynching every day. We're living with legacies of lynching on porn sites. If you go to those sites and type in, 'Big, black cock,' or 'My wife fucked a big black man' — there are millions of titles. When I talk about Ferguson and Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin and the ways in which they were shot dead, the flip side of that is this over-sexualization of the black male body on these porn sites. The 'big black cock' mythology is an invention of the white imagination. It's a fantasy. I like the idea, in a surrealist way, of making the whip also this black penis that white people have invented. It's like, 'Here. This is your invention. It's your thing. Have it back.' I try to understand the black body in the white imagination."
Lamar has traipsed through white environments all his life, including at Yale's School of Art sculpture program, which he left early to focus on music. In Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, a sweeping and moody musical theater piece that he's performing at the San Francisco Art Institute on Friday, Feb. 13, Lamar includes video of Jamie Foxx's 2005 Oscar speech, where Foxx thanks his maternal grandmother for raising him with discipline, including whipping him. In Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, Lamar includes a video of Foxx's "whipping" tribute ("when I would act a fool, she would beat me, she would whoop me, and she could get an Oscar for the way she whipped me, because she was great at it"), which inspired widespread laughs at the Oscars but inspires consternation in Lamar, who says Foxx's remarks show how deeply ingrained African-Americans have internalized the kind of violence and racism that was directed at them during slavery and beyond.
"I think a lot of black men have internalized the gaze of whiteness," Lamar says. "Part of the point of Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche is to get inside this internalization of white supremacy. We usually refer to it as internalized racism. There's this new documentary on Nat King Cole, and they show him putting light make-up on, and that was required in that point in history to be on television [in the 1950s]. And then we had Michael Jackson, who wasn't being told to become lighter but had got the message that he would be more successful and acceptable if he were lighter."
Inevitably, people ask Lamar about his twin, Laverne Cox, the transgender actress and pop-culture figure who made the cover of Time and plays the character of Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black. In 2013, Lamar acted in the series' key flashback episode, portraying the Burset character before she transitioned to a woman. Though Lamar won praise for his performance, he's critical of Orange Is the New Black, which centers on a privileged white character in a prison with many black inmates.
"I've done all sorts of things for money that I'm not proud of, and that would be one of them," says Lamar, who describes himself as "a struggling artist without a trust fund." "I'm very anti-corporate and anti-mainstream media. With any artist, including my sister, I'm always encouraging them to seek other outlets and other milieus for their work. I've always encouraged her to do one-person shows. I don't enjoy Orange Is the New Black. I'm not interested in white people's imaginings of black people.
"Black homosexuality — we really haven't had a big mainstream moment," Lamar adds. "Trans-people are having a moment. And black men and black women are having a moment. But there's a lack of even fictional characters in popular culture. To me, True Blood [the HBO vampire series] is probably the only example of an ongoing series [that had one]. And I guess there's that new show [about a hip-hop company], Empire, which all black people are watching even though it's terrible. I watch it even. Black people are just starved for reflections of themselves."
Talking to Lamar, and taking in "Negrogothic," with its widespread depictions of sex and bondage, is like being inside an experimental Ivy League classroom where the stakes are high, and every student knows it. "Negrogothic" is a tactile, visual, and auditory explosion of important ideas that are usually left to society's margins. Besides "The Penis Guillotine," the exhibit features the pillory that Lamar uses in Badass Nigga, the Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero Remix. Lamar brings the hard edges of the culture into his art, where it can occupy and exalt on center stage exactly like Lamar himself.
- Jonathan Curiel
Harsh light reflects off the pale skin of a naked man kneeling on the floor, his hands and head caught between the wood slats of a pillory. His body is held in torture in a suspended state of grueling physical, psychological and social punishment.
It’s not everyday one encounters public punishment like this, but artist and musician M. Lamar jolts and startles throughout in his solo exhibition Negrogothic, on view in the Walter and McBean Galleries through Feb. 28.
In Discipline 1 (2014), due to the way the pillory constrains his body, the sufferer’s long, dirty blond hair hides his face, making him anonymous all but for his voice — he reads aloud from a stack of texts seminal to a critical race theory class: Cornell West, Toni Morrison and Hegel, which battles in the gallery with Lamar’s chilling countertenor. Lamar’s musical power reverberates throughout the darkened exhibition space; the sounds from other videos create an eerie backdrop for this public sentence. Negrogothic is epic, with videos, still images, sculpture and performance that engage in the way disenfranchised bodies intersect with power, social order and history. And the audience is a participatory spectator.
The exhibition largely revolves around the video Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, Part Two, Overseer (2014). Employing a tragic visual punning, Lamar uses these icons to explore their many possible metaphoric meanings — bait-and-switches that can, at times, be difficult to watch but are nonetheless poignant. The long black whip is a prominent character in Surveillance, presented as a menacing disciplinary tool. When held and carried by a white shirtless man, it carries out its most simple threat, which is to be seen. Like its title suggests, surveillance punishment is enacted not by the man using the whip to whip another body but to induce a visual threat. Order is embedded into the psyche by fear of what could happen, not by what actually does.
The complicated nature of power is exampled also in the many stills from Lamar’s videos that are displayed throughout the exhibition, but titled into a series all their own. Mapplethorpe’s Whip gestures to famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial image Self Portrait with Whip (1978). This inclusion of Mapplethorpe in a title series not so subtly points to his known, and well-critiqued, fetishizing and objectification of the black male body.
The simultaneous fetishizing and fearing of the black body in U.S. history and culture is a prominent theme in Lamar’s work, but he also explores how those who are disenfranchised negotiate this history of racial trauma. Lamar uses recognizable icons, but confuses time and space. He is neither legibly historicizing nor creating a fantastical future narrative unmoored from the past. It is evidence of a racial trauma that the U.S., as a nation, has not yet come to terms with. Lamar complicates time and space until it begins to crash in on itself. Power dynamics and a linear order of social structure are dismantled and reorganized for the sake of critique.
In a smaller screening room, a collection of four shorter video pieces feel reminiscent of music videos. The music video seems an apt form as Lamar is a musician himself, and although this genre is most definitely a contested site, it is the primary cultural form where black artists have been able to participate in mainstream visual and cultural production. By default this is also a space where the idea of race, particularly notions of blackness, have been constructed, consumed and disseminated throughout popular culture. Lamar’s Goth-postpunk-diva affect is fused with his operatic style to create a mélange that cannot be named. His trans-disciplinary practice—he is an artist, performer, formally trained singer, composer and actor (and brother of Laverne Cox, from Orange is the New Black)—in both form and content transcends and critiques the categorical desire that is key to so much of our current social system.
In Negrogothic, the art viewer studies punishing torture apparatus as sculpture and watches surreal videos that teeter at the intersection of desire, punishment and power, as art video. It is here viewers are reminded that these forms of punishment, at one point and in their day, were intended for an audience—the pillory, the guillotine and lynching. The public and participatory aspect of punishment was embedded in that very system of order and power manifested through visual means.
Lamar conjures historical reminders that intermingle with forms more recognizable today, such as the music video, Goth aesthetics or contemporary writers, and reminds us that while punishment may not appear the same today, order still depends on the cooperation of those being ordered. -
With “Negrogothic, a Manifesto, the Aesthetics of M. Lamar,” the composer M. Lamar offers a bracing alternative to the dispiriting traffic in blandly competent art clogging the New York gallery system these days. Surrealistic, campy and ferociously expressionist, Mr. Lamar’s multimedia work is a heady blend of music, performance, film and political allegory that grapples with the legacy of slavery in America.
The twin brother of Laverne Cox, the transgender actor known for her role in “Orange Is the New Black,” Mr. Lamar gravitated to radical post-punk, goth and heavy metal music scenes while a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. He studied sculpture in Yale’s M.F.A. program before dropping out to concentrate on music and performance.
“Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, Part Two, Overseer,” a 10-minute, black-and-white film is projected on one wall in the darkened gallery. Harking back to the days of early silent movies, the film proceeds in a dreamlike series of vignettes accompanied by the sound of Mr. Lamar singing in a keening, operatic soprano. Playing the role of a mysterious black man called the Overseer, he’s a magnetic, androgynous figure with long, shiny hair, heavy eye makeup and a voluminous, raggedy cloak. In the most extreme scene, he subjects a group of naked young white men to a sadomasochistic ritual based on Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous photograph “Self-Portrait With Bullwhip.”
In a five-minute music video shown on a flat screen, Mr. Lamar directs naked young white men to kneel and put their heads and hands into a pillory, where they are forced to read copies of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit” and “The Cornel West Reader.” With these and other works, Mr. Lamar plumbs the depths of all-American trauma with visionary verve. -