Visual ArtCurrently Hanging: The Art of Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes and Friends
by Jen Graves
on Tue, May 11, 2010 at 11:57 AM
Maikoyo Alley-Barnes working on his sculpture on opening night. 'Did you know the East Precinct used to be a house of taxidermy?'
There's an unopened envelope tacked to the gallery wall at the heart of the show To Serve and Protect.
This enveloped arrived at the gallery, in the mail, shortly after the show opened, and the return address is the East Precinct of the Seattle Police Department. It is tacked to a part of the wall that also has other documents attached to it—these other documents are from a 2006 trial, in which the City of Seattle settled with the defendant Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes after four police officers brutally beat him one night on the street just across from where this gallery now operates, on Pike.
Kat Larson's knockout work in To Serve and Protect.
To Serve and Protect is a response by several artists to the events in Alley-Barnes's life before, during, and after the 2005 attack. Assemblages, collages, and fetish objects by Curtis Barnes, Alley-Barnes's father, and Royal Alley-Barnes, his mother, incorporate the relatively short history of Maikoiyo's life but also reach deeper in time, to histories both evil and nurturing, referencing American lynching and African ritual. Using images of Alley-Barnes as a child and a young man is a way to attempt to restore him to the flow of his own time, the fullness of which has been reduced to a series of images and media events and fairly horrifying descriptions for the last five years (the courtroom documents include discussions in which police officers cannot remember how many times they bashed his head to the ground, and discussions of his penis, among other things—the City of Seattle eventually had to settle with Alley-Barnes for its deeds that night and beyond).
The works by Curtis and Royal are touching acts of parenting as much as artmaking, and To Serve and Protect is a public ritual—Alley-Barnes calls it a ritual exorcism—as much as an art show.
"We're trying to use this shit [art] for what it's really for," Alley-Barnes said in a conversation at the gallery one afternoon after the opening.
Recognize the BMW letters?
During the packed opening, on a Friday night, he spent most of his time not hobnobbing (which would have been weird, given that images of his bloodied face from 2005 lined the walls) but instead moving around inside a clear-plasticked-off bubble in the gallery, conspicuously absent-but-present, working on two totemic, phallic-mythic sculptures built up using masking tape (masking tape), as well as a wall piece made of cardboard packages turned against the wall in a geometric formation with a giant, sad-eyed taxidermied ape in the center. ("Did you know the East Precinct used to be a house of taxidermy?" Alley-Barnes asked me. I certainly did not. The mind starts to associate wildly, disturbingly.)
What Alley-Barnes means by "using this shit for what it's really for" is sort of like what Claes Oldenburg, in an early, potent mindset, meant when he said, famously, "I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum."
"This shit's really for healing," Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes said. "These objects, they are to fix things, they are to discuss, they're not just for esoterica or platitudes."
None of the 15 artists showed each other what they were making before the exhibition opened, and they didn't show Alley-Barnes, either. He provided them with images and text from the incident as they requested it, but otherwise had no idea what was coming. He has been working on his totems in the gallery as the show has been open, as if building himself continuously in front of an audience in a way that's restorative rather than abusive. By the end of the show, May 19, his sculptures will be finished, and he'll have been in there, talking to people and simply receiving them, along with several of the other artists, who also sit in the gallery and are available for conversations.
There are many works in the show that could stand up easily outside its enveloping context. There's Kat Larson's transfixing video of Alley-Barnes standing at an easel, spraypainting his mug shot white so it disappears. The loop then plays backward, so Alley-Barnes is un-whiting-out his mug shot, which reappears. He never turns toward the camera, just sways calmly back and forth with the spray can in his hand, as if containing the two ideas at once: there is nothing to be done, and something must be done.
Larson's tattered old boxing glove with the words "GET OFF OF ME" delicately sewn onto it is another highlight—both a wish for other men and other futures, and an acknowledgement of the exhaustion built into the black male future as it's constructed here and now.
This giant poster went up the morning of the opening on 11th and Pike, on the same block as the East Precinct. Maikoyo Alley-Barnes was as surprised as anyone else to see his face there. It was the work of his friends.
Alley-Barnes's work "WE SEE"—metallic letters on the gallery wall—is not only a message of reverse surveillance, reversing the gaze from the people back to the authorities, but also a part of the conversation about the gentrification of this neighborhood. The letters themselves were taken from the side of the BMW dealership across the street, where a high-rise is supposed to go up, and they hang on the wall that faces the dealership, which is also next door to where the beating took place.
But the greatest strength of the show is its unity of purpose, its determination to speak as a whole, and to speak with and to the viewers, the various artmakers, the neighborhood, and history.
In this room, for this moment, whatever's inside the envelope from the East Precinct has the right to remain silent.