Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / If you’re looking for pure beauty, or merely a tiny aesthetic tingle, Cameron Rowland’s exhibition is not for you. Contemplating his art in an aesthetic sense is as misguided as looking for cooking tips in a boxing match. Granted, the objects he selects for his art carry a whiff of post-minimalist aesthetic. Mostly, however, the artist’s enterprise is cerebral—driven by his political convictions and backed up by his historical and sociological research. Fortunately for Rowland, the sprawl of the art world is such that it welcomes artists ranging from anaesthetic Duchampian heirs all the way over to traditional painters and sculptors striving for beauty, in effect saying to everyone, “You call yourself an artist? OK, come on in.”
At the hardly ripe age of thirty-three, Rowland has built a reputation as a major artist. He’s a 2019 MacArthur Fellow who’s been in several important exhibitions, including his well-received show at Artists Space in 2016 and a solo show at the ICA in London in 2020. Rowland’s art is not obvious, but if you put in some work, it can be meaningful. If you don’t, it will probably wash over you without having any impact at all.
Rowland’s ongoing theme is that America is a place built on slave labor and the violent and ugly aftermath of slavery. He argues that because racism is embedded in American institutions, Blacks have been prevented from ever accumulating anywhere near the wealth of Whites. Much like the author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rowland argues that American institutional racism is sufficient cause for reparations for Blacks.
In this exhibition, Rowland takes aim at the institution of the American police. In a pamphlet accompanying the exhibition (downloadable as a pdf on the gallery website), he argues that from its start, American policing was based on the White perception that the purpose of the State is to protect White property. In a footnote in his pamphlet, Rowland flicks at the English political philosopher John Locke. Although he doesn’t directly draw on Locke, or mention that Locke didn’t think his ideas about the “natural right to property” extended to White slavery of Blacks, the fact is the Lockean notion that human beings have a “natural right” to property filtered down into White thinking where it was used to justify their putative “morality” in owning Black slaves. As Rowland puts it, “The definition of the enslaved as property structured the very purpose of [American] policing, which is inherently anti-Black.”
For all Rowland’s stark focus on the politics of slaves and the legacy of slavery, and his seemingly impressive historical research (I use the word “seemingly” because given that he operates outside the fields of history and sociology, and therefore is not subject to peer review, it’s difficult to know how solid his research is), his art reflects the aesthetics of austerity. In other words, he gives us very little to look at. In this sense, his art is neither his objects nor his text, but rather the nexus between them.
To my eye (and mind), of the five pieces inside the gallery (an additional five are located off-site in nearby Seward Park), two 19th-century metal scales, hanging side-by-side on a clean white wall, that were once used for weighing cotton, are worthy of a long ponder. As objects, they at first glance seem abstract—semi-rusty pieces of funky metal that, like all pieces of funky metal hung on a white gallery wall, look handsome. He leaves it to the viewer to connect the dots between his words and the objects in front of them. It doesn’t take a genius to see that cotton scales are ironic “scales of justice” as well as physical metonyms for the accumulation of White wealth based on Black labor.
In the off-site part of the show, Rowland asks us to do some difficult dot-connecting, however. At the south end of the park, he’s placed five unlabeled benches, each exactly like all the other benches in the park. No one not knowing ahead of time that they’re part of an art exhibition would give them a second glance. They’re there without city permission and, in quiet defiance of the assumption that any New York City park bench not bolted down will eventually be stolen, they’re not bolted down. The benches are named after the addresses of five historically recognized unmarked Black graves around the city. Reading the pamphlet, you connect the dots from the unknown Black graves to the unlabeled benches.
Understanding Rowland’s exhibition requires not only the kind of close reading most of us haven’t done since college, but also an amount of reading many find burdensome when presented as part of an art exhibition. Yet those willing to work with these requirements, instead of passing over them, have an encounter with Rowland’s art that alters their perspective. We take away the unsettled feeling that there are objects all around us that carry within them the history of the oppression of American Blacks. What we do with this feeling—or if we do anything with it at all—is up to us.
“Cameron Rowland: Deputies,” Essex Street Gallery, 55 Hester Street, New York, NY. Through June 19, 2021.
About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University. Based in New York City and Lakeville, Connecticut, she is currently working on a new series of abstract paintings.