This essay is a part of the exhibition catalogue for the 2020 show Four Horsemen & the Apocalypse featuring the painted works of Chino Amobi, Curtis Newkirk, Jr., James Williams, and Josh Williams.
This past year has made everyone uncomfortable. Back in March 2020, when quarantine and lockdowns began, I remember sitting in my house, nearly excited, realizing that I could work from home, and I could finally get a break from all the going, going, going of a busy life. I could read more books! I could take up a hobby! I could do all the things I never did because I never had the time!
All of that excitement lasted for about a week.
It didn’t take long for me to realize the abrupt slowdown in life wasn’t a break as much as it was an exposure. I didn’t read more books; I didn’t start new hobbies; none of us really did. I simply stopped doing most things. The days—that turned into weeks and months—at home with fewer activities to fill my time began to show me how much of my life was a distraction and how easy it had become for me to feel productive when I was really just busy. The busyness didn’t leave time to think, and when that time finally became available, I didn’t feel comfortable.
Author Lynn Steger Strong, writing in The Guardian in May of last year wrote about this same experience, the experience of actually having to look at life amidst a slower pace. “We had checked all or most of the boxes we were told to check in our professions, even as our lives remained in constant states of anxiety and fear,” Strong wrote. “Work – the ability not only to get it and to do it but to not ever stop it – is the attribute that is perhaps flaunted and celebrated most of all. One of the reasons many of us don’t share…is, I would argue, because we’re ashamed to say we’re struggling. We’ve internalized that our suffering is our fault – that it is because we must not be working hard enough.”
Not working hard enough is that poisoned definition of the American Dream. The one that reads “the nearly exhausted, perpetually working bird gets the worm.” Sure, there are those who have made it through life not really working, but for the rest of us, we did the opposite: we gorged ourselves on exhaustion so much that we began to realize we had failed to actually live at all. The crawling pace most of us had to contend with over the last year is one that made us question and think and evaluate: all the things you can’t do when busyness is your fuel. When the world ground to a halt, we couldn’t just work our way out of today; we had to live in it. We had to stop living in the things of the past and the not-yet-things of the future. We had to sit and live in the present.
But that is exactly where we have all been all along. We all live in this strange space between fact and fiction. This small sliver of reality we have awoken to today sits silently between the high, crass crags of the past and the lilting, greenery of the future. We have grown to position today as a mere resting point between the terrible past and utopic future. Our millennia-old pursuit of progress does not allow the past to hold any value except that we have escaped from it, and it forces the future to always be a better point, even when that point repeatedly never arrives. Stack up the New Year’s Resolutions and start another diet.
We live in the present, and—as we have experienced this year—the present is the most awful of times.
It is awful because it cannot be judged and it cannot be idealized. It simply is. But it simply is in the same way that the ocean simply is water; the way that a child simply is young; and the way that a fire simply is warm. But there is expanse to the ocean, there is potential in a child, and there is something spreading in the fire. These things may simply be what they are, but their depths are not simply anything. The present is a place of becoming, a place of potential, a place—according to Voltaire—that is “pregnant with the future.” We invoke mantras of “living for today” and “letting tomorrow worry about itself,” but we rarely actually live in the present. Yet the present is the exhausting place we constantly find ourselves.
The present is so exhausting, so uncomfortable because it holds so much, not because it holds so little. The quietness we experience while living in the present is not silence; it is preparation, or perhaps—more precisely—it is active waiting. We experience this same fact in the dark before each day’s dawn or in the quiet whistle of the firecracker before the bang. Our active waiting is like Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” or John Updike’s “small deed, that hurried day” calling us to recognize what is and to step away from what we emphatically shackle ourselves to that is not.
One of my favorite things about Four Horsemen and the Apocalypse is that no one had to urge these artists to make the work of this exhibition. Over the growing malaise of the pandemic world, these four men made an active choice to engage each day in making something with their time and hands. These men have jobs and families and responsibilities that take up their time; yet, they chose each day to make. When we approached them with the concept of the show, it turned the dial up just a bit further on the work they were doing. They had been using their art as a way to affect the present, and the promise of a show only increased their capacity to continue. The output by James, Chino, Curtis and Josh was so prolific that—even in our museum-sized gallery—we still had to send some of the work home. Their dedication to actively engaging the present was such that our walls literally could not hold it.
I heard from a few of the artists that the work they made did not begin with a show in mind. All artists, on some level, envision a show coming from their work, but in the case of these four men, the point was the work. Their daily studio practice was couched in each day, not in some future glory. And the days were not wasted living in the fiction of that elusive someday; instead, their days were enriched by the work, because the work we commit ourselves to each morning is the foundation we build for the future. We can’t simply put off constantly to tomorrow or wait around for something to happen that tells us to begin living life. The arm chair philosopher John Fogerty said it well in 1972 when he reminded us that “someday never comes.” The future is a convenient lie that is capable of shouldering a million excuses.
That may make you uncomfortable, but let me be more precise. The future is not a lie, but it’s not truthful either. The future is like an old man’s fishing story: it is based in fact, but it probably looks a lot different than the how we tell it. It is a place that is not untrue; instead, at best, it is a place that is not yet true. It is fiction, but only because we have not come to it yet. It’s a lie because we tend to fail to do the work that builds the future we seek. I can’t control the future, but I can be a part. I can’t make the tomatoes grow, but I can make sure I tend the soil to make a beautiful harvest.
When we fail to do the daily work of building for the future, we are only capable of talking about it with a sullen discontent. We can only revert to speaking of the future with staunch arrogance, spewing the vitriol of what we have individually determined it to look like. And we all struggle when we hear that decisive tone around us in media, in rhetoric and even in our own mouths. We cannot lord over the future from a perch of hindsight like we can the past. And we are often uninvolved in the comings and goings of today that would actually make way for the future. So, we have to look forward, waving our signal flags of skepticism, irony, dismissal, hubris, or some great monster of them all that we have stitched together and electrocuted into diabolical life. When we fail to engage today, we can only scorn the coming tomorrow.
And when that is the future we feel most at ease selling on every street corner, then there is no chance to accept and enjoy our personal, daily role in its creation. It’s a cruel Catch-22, but one that is most definitely assured. The future will always be comfortably just beyond my reach because each day I once again am awoken into the present. My day ends in the present and it begins in the present. We are the boats borne ceaselessly into the past. As we watch all those boats paddle on we are sometimes lucky enough to realize that when we merely pursue the future, we fail to engage the present.
In the studios of these artists and on the walls of our gallery is proof of the defiance seen when artists engage the present. These collected works speak volumes and are here because the future is not written through happenstance or fatalistic apathy. The future is written every day by people like this who look to the past and see that today, like every today, is a chance to turn the tides. To shout down the naysayers. To jeer at the scoffers. Today is a day to rejoice with scissors and paints and cardboard and wood and canvas smeared with animal glue. These paintings show an active vision of what tomorrow holds. These works are a declaration for something and not simply against something else.
When we first approached Chino, James, Curtis and Josh about this show, there was a hint of apprehension about how all the pieces would actually fit together into a show. At first glance, these artists have varying styles and processes; the work of each one is easily discernible from others. At different times, they each mentioned how they didn’t envy our work choosing and arranging the show. But we could see the thread. On the night of install, the conversation repeated itself. “OK, glad you can see it,” one of the artists jokingly responded.
Oddly enough, I heard the exact opposite from individuals during the opening reception for the exhibition. Person after person mentioned how well the pieces worked together and how the collected works on display were powerful and cohesive. There actually seemed to be, in their minds, something about the differences that made everything feel more unified. From the beginning, we knew the unity of Four Horsemen and the Apocalypse would not be because the work is visually similar, but because it is diverse.
Diverse but unified. It’s a bit paradoxical, but it’s exceedingly commonplace. A choir is composed of diverse voices unifying into beautiful music. A sports team has diverse talents that unify into a sum bigger than its parts. Unified ecosystems host myriad flora and fauna. Each of these examples are defined by and are dependent upon the individuals that comprise the whole. A missing voice changes the choir, a missing player affects the team, and even the smallest parts of an ecosystem can usher in collapse when they are absent. The unity may be the first thing seen, but it is always underscored by the parts that give it vitality and life.
However, during a time such as ours, unity in diversity may seem like a mere platitude or some bucolic fever dream, but unity in diversity is exactly what is most prominent in Four Horsemen and the Apocalypse. As glimpses of pieces began to come across our phones or in emails, the thread of this show became more and more prominent. The saccharin colors and hopeful celebrations in the works carried their own internal conversation with one another, and in the gallery, this conversation became a shouting match, where one piece barks from across the space to wrestle your attention away from another. The through line of the show is aesthetic. And it is conceptual. But it is hope.
The unity that I see in a diverse field of artists is a respite during a heavy year of fear and loathing. This gonzo world is as strange as a bad trip through the desert. The bold lines of abstract space that James Williams carefully lays on his canvases are contemporary landscapes pushing me to the East, beyond a crystal sea. Chino Amobi’s flowers stand tall amidst a nuclear wind of atmospheric color evoking a moment of defiance just as the first bomb falls. Curtis Newkirk, Jr.’s subjects defy the boundary of the frame, ripping painting’s past into the present, shouting at the canon to open its clenched fists. And Josh Williams’ quiet moments of calm are like cinematic stopping points, hidden yet manicured, and perfectly assembled for maximum effect.
Each artist is unique in their work and the obvious choices that go into their making, but alongside one another, they take on a larger quality and form something more.
It is beneficial to push this idea even further: unity in diversity is not just a part of this exhibition, it is a central feature of every aspect of art. Through methods and materials, the artist hones unity from a diverse palette. Curators craft unity through the assemblage of diversity inside their gallery. Viewers seek unity as they ask questions of and inquire about a particular work. Unity and diversity are there for every stop.
Despite this, unity in diversity still doesn’t sit well with everyone, and most likely it is because unity seems to be at odds with individuality. If we are unified in some way, then the me-ness of me has to dissolve into some rank beige boredom. But this defies any true unity we have ever experienced.
We fight against being a part of something because we desire so much to be the whole something. There is some need to have the solo show, to be the lead performer, to be the MVP; don’t talk to us about collaboration, ensembles, or sportsmanship. We view it as horrid to melt into the miasma of something bigger than ourselves, as if the concept of some larger community is at war with our fragile individualistic identities. The ocean floor is littered with beautiful shells and reefs and fish with strange faces but to get there you have to plunge beneath the water. On top I am a bobbing individual, on full display for everyone (Hello? Are you out there?) to see. Underneath is life, but that life means a death. And dammit, we are the invincible.
Aren’t we? Please say yes. The answer can’t be no.
But of course the answer is no.
Read that again. Sigh with relief that you do not provide the girding supports for reality and that your small frame does not bear the burden of the future.
These four painters reiterate that idea. We cannot, Mr. Dylan, contain the multitudes. That is why we capture the moments in oil and dirt. We cannot make it all beautiful again. That is why we force together vignettes of color and shape. We cannot undo the sharp cliffs of the past that many have died upon. That is why we stand sternly in the present with two feet on the ground defiantly working in our small studios.
We are fragile, and we know we have today. I cannot be more grateful for four artists who chose to take that single unit of time and give us such powerful beauty.