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.
“If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today.”
– Martin Luther
I read this quote years ago and it still remains provocative to me personally as a touchpoint for consideration. I have often challenged myself to consider the sentiment of this statement and ask questions of my own life. I ask, “What do I contribute to culture?” “Am I helping to bring about the ‘greater good’?” and also, “What good should I do today that need not wait until tomorrow?”
While I scrutinize and set the course for my own life asking questions like these, the “end of the world” piece often fades to the background amidst the bustle of decision making and imminent demands. And yet, amidst the local, national and global landscape of 2020 this quote resurfaces waiting to be applied or ignored in a very specific way. Are we in something of an apocalypse right now? Because it certainly feels like it. Even now as I type, my home state of California is engulfed in flames suitable even for Dante. The same is true for much of the west coast with fires the likes of which we have never seen. Civil unrest in the U.S. is at a boiling point with protests and rioting over justice, fairness, and equality. The unprecedented corona virus pandemic has proved to have severe and devastating global effects that threaten to persist for years to come. Many are secluded in their homes out of both safety and fear while those outside have become masked. One of the most polarized U.S. presidential elections is ahead of us in just one short month. Doom, gloom and mayhem seems to be present at every turn and sunrise. When I close my eyes and take it all in it seems to be too much all at once. Perhaps this is the end indeed.
As a kid, I can recall being both horrified and compelled by the movie Road Warrior and its depiction of Mad Max, a rugged survivor in a future brimming with a sense of the past that had been lost to a paradigmatic cataclysm. Even then, as a child, such vivid cinematic visions of societal breakdown seemed on the one hand, incomprehensible, and yet on the other, real and just around the corner. America has long-held a love affair with notions of the apocalyptic genre. I’m reminded of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film Apocalypse Now which inoculated pop culture with a superficial familiarity of the word “apocalypse.” The power of Coppola’s visual representation paired with the declaration that the apocalypse was “now” would forever influence an association of untold horror and chaos as the vision of the future for so many. Mass devastation, worldwide destruction, aesthetics of ruin, breakdown, lawlessness, and enclaves of survivors fighting off foes are all imaginings of cinematic proportions brought to our doorstep for consumption in recent decades. A more current proclivity of zombie characters in media has made us to imagine the post-apocalyptic world so instantly as “The Walking Dead,” blurring the lines of possibility and impossibility in many psyches.
While not the kind of thing most action heroes would do when facing down nuclear blasts or a rush of zombies, I return to Luther’s quote. “Plant a tree.” Essentially he is saying the world is ending, so the imperative is to obviously…preserve the future? This paradox might give you a jolt if you, like me, have seen too many movies of the kind I just described above. The zombies are coming remember. Planting a sapling that yields no immediate benefit is counterintuitive. But I’ve had time to consider this conundrum and if you know me, you know I love a good paradox, especially if it has many dimensions.
I think Luther is on to something and because I believe he is, you have found yourself at this moment reading this essay I have written as part of an attempt to “plant a tree” so to speak. The current show at Shockoe Artspace, “The Four Horsemen and The Apocalypse” is that tree. The road that has led to this “tree” is long and complex but there is a timeline of particular generative markers that are worth elucidating because they serve as important signposts that lead us to this significant current moment. Put another way, we need to look back into history to gain insight into where we are headed in our future. If not carefully examined, these events could seem as one-off occurrences, their success measured by metrics of attendance or revenue at the time they occurred. But success can also be gauged by what people do when an event is over. Will it be a catalyst for something new to emerge? The event can function like a cultural thermometer telling us about the health of a given society, city, or region measured by an over-time response.
Here in Richmond, Virginia, several such catalytic events took place in a little over four years. In the year 2016 the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) launched one of the most critical and potent exhibitions the city has ever hosted with a large-scale retrospective of Kehinde Wiley’s large paintings called A New Republic. In 2018, the Institute for Contemporary Art, also in Richmond, held its inaugural exhibition titled Declaration making a statement that, “We believe in the socially transformative power of art and artists. We declare that this power can be unleashed through many kinds of artistic practices and the deliberate inclusion of many voices.” In the following year through the collaborative work and partnership of BROWNBAYLOR creative and Richmond City, a major road that crosses Richmond’s historic Monument Avenue leading traffic past the VMFA was renamed Arthur Ashe Boulevard in honor of the significant life and accomplishments of Richmond native and tennis pioneer Arthur Ashe. Seven months removed from that celebration in December of 2019 Kehinde Wiley’s singular work, Rumors of War was installed just outside the VMFA and facing Arthur Ashe Boulevard. This giant monument seemed to “link arms” with Arthur Ashe as a permanent declaration, displaying the ICA’s inaugural exhibition’s sentiments with the backing and conviction of a collecting museum in the VMFA. The incredible vision of Bill and Pam Royall to fund the monument, the commitment and fortitude of the VMFA, and the genius and enduring inspiration of Kehinde Wiley now stand in permanent provocative contrast to the neighboring monuments of the Confederacy residing just down the street and to the Daughters of the Confederacy museum right next door.
Fast forward to Summer 2020, only a few short months ago. Protests and standoffs with the Richmond Police Department take center stage as demands for justice across many major cities reach a feverish pitch. Confederate horsemen are demanded to be removed or else be forcibly removed and/or graffitied, mocked and publicly ridiculed while Wiley’s horseman remains unscathed, a clear victor standing tall and clear. The future is now and discussions about what to put in place of the defeated empty slabs are being had. “What is the future to be?” We all want to know and thus the stage is set for a fresh vision if one has eyes to see it. A living vision. A close-to-home kind of vision if you will. It turns out an apocalypse wasn’t always the stuff of burning buildings, fiery crashes, zombie attacks, or even pandemics. In ancient literature Jewish texts use the term to mean more of the changing of an age, a paradigm shift of sorts. It certainly did not suppose Mel Gibson out for revenge, driving a souped-up car while holstering a sawed-off shotgun in a desolate wasteland where he is chased by lawless militias governed by a violent lust for power.
In this time of civil unrest, a time of questions, confusion, hurt, and battles still to be fought, Shockoe Artspace proudly seeks to serve you an apocalyptic tale better understood. A tale of change. While many may fear this to be the end of the world, four artists have busied themselves with the hopeful act of making new visions of what life is like and can be. Vibrant abstracted paintings sing a visual composition that must be seen to be felt, with dense networks of color subtly shifting and exchanging across the varied sized canvases of James L. Williams, dazzlingly vibrant flowers float in a garden that we have not yet seen but still feel familiar with in the incredible neon fever dream paintings of Chino Amobi, framed visions of life bursting forth and humanity remade through the careful eyes and hands of a masterful painter Curtis Newkirk, Jr. and the intimate, joyful collages that dance in electric ways before your eyes in the new designed work of the emerging artist/designer Josh Williams. In these incredible works we encounter a kind of visual abundance, giving us new visuals to consider that perhaps can be freshly enjoined to the term “apocalypse” as the dawning of an age. We need this fresh take more than ever; we cannot afford to let confirmation bias drive us to see the world end while missing where trees are being planted that need water, cultivation, and care. This show seeks to amplify all that these artists are: visionary, exemplar, and hopeful.
Inspired by the brazen optimism of Luther’s sentiment, I propose we have been witnesses to the trees that were planted in the events from Wiley’s show to the renaming of Arthur Ashe Boulevard to the erecting of Rumors of War. This exhibition serves as another one of those generative events in the new Richmond story where works of art are indeed a hopeful act of a better life waiting ahead of us. It is important to note that each of these artists is multi-disciplinary in their studio art and design practices and three of the four artists are fathers and husbands with a multi-generational impact occurring right in their very homes. There is a seismic potential here in the reality of just four people, who during and through these difficult times have in effect maintained, if not amplified, their studio practices as painters, each in their own distinct voice. These artists have been occupied with a vision of the future and an expectation that their work, themselves, and their families will not only be there in that future, but will also be welcomed, accepted, and looked to for guidance and leadership as they each possess the expansive vision, experience, and ability worthy of following.
Rather than monuments that are frozen in time as statues, these individuals are alive, breathing and worthy of our honor, dignity and respect. These are the embodied realities who should be supported, reinforced, taken seriously, upheld and championed. If Wiley painted for us depictions that re-envisioned the past, we—in these four artists—get a living vision of the present and future. This unprecedented large-scale exhibition of four black artists is the kind of reality we must take our cues from, to continue pointing the way forward for our city, the state of Virginia, and our country. Let these men be your new generals.
The change has come, can you see it? Luther could, and I want to, too.