On Beauty and Repulsion: Whiteness, Art, and Inviting Discomfort

Brandon Andrew is an artist. He is white, he is queer, and he excels at making people uncomfortable. Maybe this is why I fell so deeply in love with him when I met him. He goes all the way, and so does his art.

I was in Los Angeles earlier this month at the opening of his new show.

Standing in the glow of a stunning neon and stucco piece, I was drawn to the light, to the glow –attracted on an almost pheromonal level.

I spent the rest of the night walking around the gallery, but kept returning to stand in the halo of warm light coming off this one piece.

It felt good. It was beautiful.

But mostly, it was easier than dealing with the rest of his work.

Because even after years of doing racial justice work, there are still things I have to breathe through, where I have to get to the other side of uncomfortable before I can begin to digest.

Brandon’s show is entitled, “The Roughs.” It originated out of text that Walt Disney Studios gave animators in 1934 to help them envision and draw the character of “The Goof,” aka Goofy. Animators were told,

“Think of the Goof as a composite of an everlasting optimist, a gullible Samaritan, a half-wit, a shiftless, good-natured nigger boy, and a hick.”

Yep.

There are two types of pieces in the show. The first are stunning neon swoops set atop stucco, the light bouncing off the nooks and hollows. Brandon uses the neon to loosely trace the lines used to sketch The Goof.

The second are pieces built upon photographs by David Duncan Douglas from his book Self Portrait: USA, which chronicled the divisive election year and racial politics of 1968 as well as the police riots in Chicago. (Sound familiar?) On top of these images Brandon uses Disney animation techniques to render the lines of The Goof.

The work is gorgeous, and captivating.

You drink from it, drink in some more, and when intoxication is just about to set in you realize you’re not supposed to be getting inebriated–you’re supposed to feel sick, repulsed.

It’s not until you’ve stood there with it for a while, until you read the instructions given to the animators hanging from a clipboard on the gallery wall that everything begins to click.

So there I stood, drenched in neon light, drinking a beer, snatching glimpses at the piece kitty corner from me, the piece I found the most difficult to engage with. It’s one of the photographs. In it, a young black man is lying in a hospital bed, and above him, suspended on a string, hangs an image of Martin Luther King. Brandon has engraved the following excerpt from the instructions given to the animators on the glass holding the image, “His figure was a distortion, not a caricature, and if he was supposed to have a mind or a personality, he certainly wasn’t given sufficient opportunity to display it.”

I think about the black students I work with, that I love. I think about all the young black men and women who have been gunned down by law enforcement, I think about their parents. I think about all the lives never given “sufficient opportunity.” I think about disliking Goofy cartoons as a kid because I thought he was dumb. I think about what that means in the light of The Roughs.

Then, I glance down and see the neon dancing across my alabaster arm. It’s lovely.

I think: This is what it is to be white. I can always turn my head back to something lovely, something easy.

“Will magnificent objects suffer if they are found to have unbeautiful back stories?”

That is the question Holland Cotter, art critic for the New York Times posed earlier this month in his article Making Museums Moral Again.

Brandon’s show demands that we wrestle with this question. The pieces demand we wrestle with the power and privilege of whiteness. What does it mean that whiteness defines and drives our narratives, our history, our current reality? At what cost? At who’s cost?

These pieces ask us to get beyond the allure and beauty and engage with the rottenness behind it.

Brandon provides us with an opportunity to ask ourselves, “Does this mean more or less to me because I have been made uncomfortable? Does its magnificence suffer?”

I chose to breathe through the discomfort, to accept the beauty and repulsion –knowing that it’s the path to understanding, to transformation.

The Roughs is on display at the Luis De Jesus gallery in Los Angeles until Saturday April 16th. Brandon Andrew is hosting a walk-through this Saturday April 9th, from 3–5pm, more details here.