“So much of Dada was about the absurdity of life, and there’s something absurd about America today. I couldn’t help but respond as an artist – and a citizen.”
- ADAM PENDLETON
James Baldwin once said, “If [history] were the past, it would not mater … History is the present.” (J. Baldwin quoted in J. Baldwin and M. Mead, A Rap on Race, 1971). This notion of reconstructing one’s past to create new iterations of the present has become a central tenant in the work of contemporary artist Adam Pendleton. Pendleton’s work takes on many forms, ranging from collage and painting to video and performance. Yet, each medium employed by the artist functions around one primary theme: how language can be deconstructed and reconstructed, used as a material that creates new understandings of historical narratives, specifically those surrounding Black culture and aesthetics.
Pendleton understands the complexities of how histories are shaped more intimately than most. Latent within his oeuvre is a belief that what has happened in the past informs our present, but our present plays an equally determining role in how we understand our past. Therefore, both language and images become the tools through which we shape our stories, and Pendleton handles both with extreme dexterity and intellect. However, it should be noted that Pendleton does not hand his viewers clear-cut images or mythologies, instead preferring to disrupt straightforward logic and established history. The title of the present work, OK DADA OK BLACK DADA OK (Make the Language Clear), underscores this point. Despite the title’s plea to “make the language clear,” only fragments of words and phrases, such as “Dada” or “all we got,” are legible underneath the mass of lines and geometric forms.
These ideas are most clearly elucidated through his foundational conceptual thesis: Black Dada. The term is derived from a 1964 poem by the writer and activist Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) titled “Black Dada Nihilismus.” Even here, Pendleton opts to use only a portion of the poem’s title, abstracting the language at his disposal from the very start. At its core, Black Dada is “[a desire to] juxtapose peoples, moments, events, and even forms with historical periods where their influence/presence is often not considered and at times [un]acknowledged.” (A. Pendleton, quoted T. Mcdonough, “The Parallax View: The Art of Adam Pendleton, Artforum, November 2011). Pendleton saw a connection between the Dada texts of European artists such as Hugo Ball, written during and about the trauma and destruction of World War I, and the work of those in the Black Power and Black Arts Movements such as Amiri Baraka and W.E.B Du Bois, whose writings illustrated and historicized the pain of systemic violence and racism during the civil rights movement. By connecting these historical moments in his visual work and his text, The Black Dada Reader, Pendleton opens up a space to ruminate on how ideas of racism, violence, and displacement are experienced today.
While the framework of Black Dada came to the fore in 2008, the present painting, OK DADA OK BLACK DADA OK (Make the Language Clear) (2018), belongs to a more recent iteration on this theme, the OK DADA OK BLACK DADA OK series. In the earlier works, a small number of letters—sometimes even a single letter—would be set against a black ground. Recently, however, Pendleton has swapped this radical subtraction for the near overwhelming addition seen here. This work, like almost all of Pendleton’s practice, is created through mechanical means. The importance of the mechanical in Pendleton’s work again calls in his Dada predecessors, but he is quick to distance himself from their love of machines as objects in and of themselves. Likewise, he is more critical and cautious of the utopian ideals Dada put forth, saying, “…I feel that in order for Utopian ideas to be effective, one must find a way to be specific and general at the same time. My work creates a broad operating space or idea, like Black Dada, and then focuses on specific notions within that space—like language or deconstructing the avant-garde. I hope to use these past movements as a means to equally deconstruct and construct a future.” (A. Pendleton, quoted in J. Wilcox, “Black Dada a Conversation with Adam Pendleton,” Art in America, February 28, 2009).
“The experience of language is not isolated. It is an act taking place in the world like all else. It is not the act, separate, describing the world. It is, it occurs, in real time.”
- ADAM PENDLETON