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I hadn’t thought this much about balls in a long time; but there they were, hanging out in Ravi Jackson’s debut solo exhibition Ice on Soul at Richard Telles Gallery: a messy, complex, and exciting presentation. In 13 untitled paintings (all 2017), Jackson pulls together a range of poignant associations that circle the drain around issues of masculinity. All the works draw heavily from the complicated writings in Eldridge Cleaver’s infamous text, Soul on Ice, from which the exhibition takes its name.
It’s hard to ignore the pedestrian quality of Jackson’s media: plywood, MDF, melamine, children’s cabinetry knobs, eye hooks and grommets, acrylic paint, swatches of cheap fabric, and feathered earrings from trendy seasons of yore. Print outs of Donatello’s David, a Black Bart Simpson, Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, eBay bidding pages, and typo-speckled Facebook posts are posed as vital as any stroke of paint. They share their surfaces with little hierarchy; they all intrude on one other in collaborative overlap— building meaning through interruption.
All the layers, seemingly casual in their placement, are in a sexy state of dishabille—forever somewhere between undress and redress. Painted-over records become exposed breasts, eyes, targets; cabinet knobs stand-in for colloquial “knobs”; cut-outs are portholes, glory holes, and every bodily orifice you can think of; brass hooks are “come hither” fingers; draped fabric becomes loin cloths, flirtatious hemlines, or a curtain for a certain Courbet.1
But of these objects, the most euphemistic are the upturned furniture legs. In previous works, Jackson affixed them so that they stood straight out from their canvases. Here, the legs sit upturned on shelves, robbed of their supportive purpose and effectively neutered in the process. In their inversion and isolation they transform: they become phallic totems, miniature Brancusi’s… or butt plugs?
Furthest from the door, in a modest shadowbox, Jackson has posed a leg beside a hanging brown clod. Dangling below is Cleaver’s essay-cum-poem, “To All Black Women From All Black Men”; his landmark but problematic text details his return to the love of Black women while reifying a hegemonic masculinity, misogynistic perspectives, and shades of anti-blackness. In this arrangement, the virile male phallus is likened to the spent, the soft, and the fecal; which could lead one to gather that rigid masculinity isn’t worth shit—it’s far more complicated than that.
Beside the shadowbox, a smattering of eyepatched Snake Plisskens stare out from among 1975 advertisements for the centerpiece of Eldridge de Paris’ new Fall collection.2 You’ll Be Cock of the Walk it announces. They’re for men only… Real men… the three-fisted variety. An essentialized representation of a black man (the model is Cleaver) sits on the same plane as the equally hyper-manly Plissken. Floating around them are the sienna-hued smudges reminiscent of the scatological affinities of Jean Dubuffet. Between the marks, loose flesh colored smears of paint recall the evocative scrawls of Cy Twombly. And all these men sit swaddled and rustling behind a sheer veil of pink and under the historic weight of Robert Rauschenberg’s Rebus.
Jackson’s paintings are a workspace and a bed and they call to us. His hazy saccharine scribbles and candy-colored balls bouncing between the manliest men ask us to play. Nearby, a human-scale print of the lyrics from the Isley Brothers’ Between the Sheets croons over us. Across the room, through a shroud of greens, the soft and somber faces of Donatello’s David look on at an outlandish display of manhood. All at once Jackson manages to lasso notions of machismo—of the black, big-screen, and Modernist, pop cultural, and ‘high-brow’ variety— and offers them as equal players in trafficking an impenetrable (and often false-front) model of masculinity. By plotting them all on the same plane, Jackson forces them to intrude on one another, denying any one incarnation total completion or certitude. Each one, no longer impervious, emulates the incredible complexity, messiness, and beauty that the masculine can be.
Ravi Jackson: Ice on Soul ran from September 9–October 14, 2017 at Richard Telles (7380 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036).
Originally published in Carla issue 10