Left, from Trajal Harrell’s The Return of La Argentina. Courtesy of the artist. Center, from Lisa Jarrett’s How Many Licks? II (Conditioned No. 13,763), (2017). Courtesy of the artist. Right, still from Love is the Message, The Message is Death, (2016). Courtesy Arthur Jafa and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome.
Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.
As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.
With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.
This first transmission (6.4.18) features Amber Musser on Trajal Harrell’s The Return of La Argentina, Faye Gleisser on Lisa Jarrett’s How Many Licks? II (Conditioned #13,763), and Huey Copeland on Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
Portland, Oregon-based artist, Lisa Jarrett’s How Many Licks? II (Conditioned No. 13,763) consists of 112 crystalline-clear lollipops, carefully hand-made of beet sugar, affixed to white paper sticks and wrapped in transparent cellophane. At a distance, the packaged lollipops mounted in seven by eight rows appear as a cohesive set. Each sucker leans ever so slightly away from the wall with clinical precision casting an angled shadow. Up close, the work wavers between stasis and the unfolding of an idea, like a taste forming on the tongue. At the near-center of each sucker sits the artist’s hair, discarded strands taken from her ritualized comb-outs that have been twisted and coaxed into composite spheres. As the diffuse gallery light moves through the condensed properties of melted sugar, it distorts the size, texture, and shape of each ball of hair, causing the strands to appear enlarged, optically boosted by the candied shell. As a result, How Many Licks? II comes in and out of view by way of magnification.
To “magnify” is to enlarge, to inflate, intensify, and maximize; it is to extol, glorify, and to make something appear larger than it is.1 Magnified size, however, in its medical definition, is not a shape, but a ratio, a comparison of actual angular size of an object to the actual size of an object when viewed at a conventional distance.2 If the enlargement of an object qualified by a calculated conventional distance constitutes optical magnification, then Jarrett’s How Many Licks? attempts to calculate the imperfect ratio between expectation and reality, plotting physical as well as emotional and psychological distance between viewers and Jarrett’s labor of self-preservation, conditioned by her experience as an African American woman, teacher, and artist. In so doing, Jarrett presents a portrait of black magnification via complex tensions of pleasure and disgust, sweetness and bitterness, and violence and care.
“Blackness,” Nicole Fleetwood writes, “circulates.”3 In dialogue with this formulation, How Many Licks? suggests that blackness circulates through a process of magnification, and the processing of this magnification on and through the bodies conditioned by it. Black hair and sugar carry studied, politically-charged symbolism: the former solicits connotations of desire, beauty, and racial stigma, while the latter materializes relations of exploitation and consumption, and desire and addiction, woven through entangled histories of slavery, colonialism, and capitalism.4 For Jarrett, using her own hair has been a great practice in grounding the self, “a study in survival as an Othered body.”5 Each ball of hair rolled and cast in sugar (her hands made raw by this labor) is a gesture of elevation; of deciding that her body has worth, should be preserved, displayed, and coveted. But this body and its low-tech preservation, though it seductively invites, is not for grabs.6
Suspended inside sugary-sweet, flavored orbs, Jarrett inverts the promise of sexual or even just sensual encounter: an over-determined outside (black hair, the femme black body) becomes the untouchable, enshrined inside beyond immediate reach.7 It’s a clear thing wrapped in a clear thing, Jarrett explains. It appears to be something you can pick up and put in your pocket.8 But you must work to get to that center, to reach the body encased within. And, inevitably, the encounter with this center—summoning catchphrases, “brown sugar,” and “the darker the berry the sweeter the juice”—will be less than delicious. Instead, the arrival will be a horrible sensation on your tongue. If even just one strand of hair in your mouth is uncomfortable, what will a ball of sticky hair or an inventory of fantasies yield when swallowed? As Lil’ Kim sings provocatively about the fantasy of attaining a reachable core of the black femme body: How many licks does it take till you get to the center of the…?
Through an ordered grid of lollipops that both honors and critiques the assumed “innocence” of materials within conceptual art and minimalism, Jarrett theorizes the sensorial and psychological events that constitute black magnification and its output: the decentered centeredness of the black femme body. #13,763, the number enclosed within the work’s subtitle, does not, as may be first supposed, refer to the number of licks queried by the title, but to the number of days (approximately thirty-eight years) that Jarrett had lived at the time of the confection-making. This equation of potential licks determined via lived- and processed-days enacts a pseudo-science, one in reference to the subjective quantification that has so deeply conditioned racialization, and blackness, in particular. Here, the seeming innocence of conjuring and capturing the experience of 13,763 days lived as an African American woman, traces the longer history, and the stakes of, counting and accumulation when blackness has been deemed a tangible amount of something abstract: an entity determined by whites to be measurable in drops of blood, the phrenological study of skulls, or behavioral typologies linked to deviance.9 Each narrative, initially presented as clean, scientific, and orderly ‘common sense’ has been used to justify oppressive logics of racial inequality and its contingent tactics of dehumanization. A lick, tellingly, is itself a form of shared knowledge, an “extremely small amount of something abstract,” whose arbitrary value becomes tangible through repetition.10
How many abstractions does it take to get to the center of black magnification? What is at that center? In Jarrett’s handcrafted confections, the question of ‘how many licks?’ ultimately reveals itself as the ruse it has always been. The proposition is more telling of the desire for quantitative answers to unanswerable, philosophical concerns invested in securing the perceived existence of being-left-in-tact.11 The inquiry is not quantitatively but ethically driven: it is indicative of a lack of discernment for the processing of being processed and what continues to be a blindness to the collective sum of this inventory. As the artist reminds, the price of one lollipop is the price of all. There is no wholesale discount.12How Many Licks? captures the artist’s efforts to materialize the immaterial, to calculate her own condition(ing) via the angled relations of expectation and reality, and access and refusal.
This is one of three essays from the first transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
About the editors:
Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.
Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.
- Merriam-Webster, “magnification,” definition entry. Retrieved May 16, 2018: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/magnification.
- Millodot: Dictionary of Optometry and Visual Science, 7th edition. S.v. “magnification.” Retrieved May 15 2018 from https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/magnification
- Nicole Fleetwood. Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 6.
- Consider two exemplary works: Lorna Simpson’s Wigs (Portfolio), 1994, and Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, 2014, at the Domino Sugar Factory. For scholarship on the edibility of blackness, see Doris Witt’s Black Hunger: Soul Food and America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: New York University Press, 2012); and April Merleaux’s Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
- Lisa Jarrett, How Many Licks? II (Conditioned No. 13,763). Project Diana at Alice Gallery, Seattle, Washington. https://www.thealicegallery.com/project-diana
- “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful,” bell hooks writes, “because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling.” Furthermore, to “get a bit of the Other,” was not just to sexually possess her, but also to be transformed by the encounter. See Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 21-22.
- I am grateful to Dr. Freda Fair for helping me see this connection more clearly.
- Author in conversation with Lisa Jarrett. May 2018.
- For a discussion of phrenology and racialized notions of criminality see, for instance, Allan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive,” October v. 39 (Winter 1986): 3-64; for an examination of the history of photography and racial typologies see Shawn Michelle Smith’s American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).
- Oxford English Dictionary. “lick,” retrieved May 10, 2018 from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/lick.
- Fred Moten’s prescient thoughts on licking lend further entry into the idea of being-left-in-tact: “it’s not so much that there is a thin line between licking and consumption but rather than there is a thin line between their interinanimation and a devouring that leaves nothing intact. But is anyone left intact?” See Moten’s “Liner Notes for Lick Piece,” Black and Blur: Consent Not to be a Single Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 144.
- Author in conversation with Lisa Jarrett. May 2018.