Archibald Motley‘s works, now showing at the Whitney in Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, are perhaps the opposite of dark except in content manner. Does this seem counter-intuitive? Actually, what I mean to say is that Motley’s paintings are filled with a seemingly vibrant exuberance that seems to shout as if ordering the viewer to mentally acknowledge right then and there the history of the Harlem Renaissance, or rather that of the Jazz Age entirely, to his or her capacity. I couldn’t stand Motley’s painting style, it felt silly and kitschy and not at all consistent with what the Whitney tends to show, but kudos to the curators for stepping out of their “Postmodern and Contemporary art by white intellectuals or druggies that sells at Christie’s and Gagosian as brand-name or soon to be brand-name” bubble. Back to my previous point: Motley depicts scenes of happiness and joy, intimate gatherings and moments of tender silence, with a certain poignancy and grit that makes the paintings seem so average to the untrained, unaccustomed eye and yet there is something that continued to bother me about them until I eventually figured out what it is: a sense of tragic futility.
Motley’s figures in Getting Religion are dancing with fervent passion because there is nothing else left to do, twirling as an ultraviolet light closes in on them, warning of morning’s imminent arrival. The artist also has whorehouses, cabarets, and stern-looking women for subjects. But perhaps I am reading too much into Motley in an endogetical fashion; maybe I’m projecting my current state of being onto his work, which for all I know could be all fun and games. To me, however, his paintings do echo some of the lyrics in Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made.
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming.
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence.
In our calamitous sphere of existence, all I, personally, can hear is silence, and as oxymoronic and faux-poetic as that might seem, I believe it to be true. It does seem to have crept up on us, doesn’t it?
Like a cancer grows.