BY CHARLES SCHULTZ
There is a standard hierarchy in a deck of cards. The king is always more powerful than the jack or the queen; the nine is always higher than the five. The only card with the capacity to swing is the ace, and it swings in the extreme, alternately ranking as the highest or the lowest card in the deck. Amongst the four aces, the ace of spades also carries a folkloric connotation as the “death card,” in which death translates not as the conclusion of mortality but as a symbol of transition. As such, the ace of spades is an apt theme for a group show straddling the passage between years.
The ace of spades is also, simply, black—a color with its own abundance of cultural, political, and social associations. Blackness predominates in the work of the three artists whom Gwendolyn Skaggs, founder and director of SUGAR,selected for Ace of Spades. In a space small enough to feel intimate—though hardly cramped—Hilda Shen’s five neatly framed monotypes face one of Vincent Como’s buckling works in ballpoint pen on paper. An installation of Alex Binder’s atmospheric black-and-white photographs sprawls asymmetrically on a third wall, acting as a visual bridge between the work of Shen and Como.
Binder’s photographs have a gritty, grainy quality to them, which enhances the overt eeriness of his subject matter. There are hooded figures in a forest, many masked faces, an old pistol on an old wall, a tarantula, and a horned human atop a bluff, to name but a few of Binder’s occult images—there are over 30 in all. The photographs (all 8 by 10 inches) are taped to the wall and curl slightly, adding a shadowy dimension to their installation. Yet despite the spooky, spectral character of Binder’s photographs, they evoke a kind of tranquility. Nothing is actually menacing. Even the more ominous figures appear pensive, as if Binder caught them in the depths of contemplation.
Hilda Shen’s monotypes loosely picture the night sky as it might look in a time-lapse photograph. Unlike Binder’s images, however, there is a more pronounced element of violence in Shen’s work. As is customary in monotypes, Shen begins with the paper’s surface completely inked and creates an image through a process of erasure. Rather than use the standard tools, Shen rubs, scratches, and digs into the paper with her fingernails, elbows, and palms. Interestingly, three of the five pieces are titled “Illumined,” suggesting illumination as a consequence of eradication. Yet in the process of removing the ink—of cancelling out the darkness—she imbues each monotype with a trace of her physical presence. In doing so, Shen establishes a certain duality between what she adds and extracts, which compliments the relationship between darkness and illumination, as well as the physical violence employed to evoke what is typically considered peaceful: stars swirling through a night sky.
Vincent Como’s work is also ink on paper, though Como’s process is strictly additive. “Untitled (Reinhardt)” is a square—five feet in width—covered completely with ink from a ballpoint pen. Like Reinhardt’s famous black paintings, Como works from a grid that almost disappears under the inky gleam. Where Reinhardt intended his surfaces to be immaculate and smooth, Como favors distortion. His paper bulges and bows beneath the weight of so much ink. The fragility of Reinhardt is exchanged for a sense of heaviness and distress. “Untitled (Reinhardt)” is a work that embodies equally the concentration necessary to complete such an arduous inking process, and the turbulence which that process produces.
Taken as a whole, the works in the exhibition compliment one another nicely, and share a common characteristic that corresponds with the ace’s transitional history. One of the primary elements of each work is relatively unsophisticated—ballpoint pens (Como), fingernail scratches (Shen), masking tape (Binder)—yet the final pieces are all unquestionably refined. In this regard, each work might be considered high-art, which nonetheless contains a strand of the lowly. Likewise, the ace was traditionally the lowest card in the deck until angry French proletariats overthrew their monarchy and instituted a new rule: ace high. This transition symbolized the heart of the French revolution; the commoners’ card outranked the king. The ace of spades, which had previously been the least valuable card, became the highest card in the deck.