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McArthur Binion

Hand: Work: II / Lehmann Maupin and Massimo de Carlo / Hong Kong / May 22 – July 6 / Diana d’Arenberg Parmanand /

After decades of being overlooked, 73-year-old American artist McArthur Binion is having a moment. With a spate of recent exhibitions, notably his inclusion in the 2017 Venice Biennale Viva Arte Viva and a 2018 solo exhibition at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Detroit, this past month the artist has also celebrated the opening of several solo exhibitions in Asia. One at Lehmann Maupin Seoul was preceded by Hand:Work:II, a two-gallery show spread out across Massimo de Carlo and Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong’s Pedder Building. 

In the late 1970s Binion found himself at the centre of the dizzying, meteoric art scene in Soho, New York, hanging out with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt. Binion’s works are seemingly cut from the same mould as the two minimalist figureheads; they appear minimalist from a distance, but up close reveal themselves as something entirely different.

Using oil stick, Binion draws vertical and horizontal lines in a grid over a layer of photographs or copies of personal documents: photocopies of his birth certificate and pages from phone books he kept from 1972 to the 1990s. The surfaces of the aluminium or wooden panels are divided into squares, resembling a patchwork quilt or woven rattan. Some works are in black and white, while others are washed over with expressionist strokes of coloured ink: purple, green or yellow. These biographical documents and photos underpin all Binion’s work, and are what he refers to as the “under-conscious”, rather than collages. This skin is marked with a network of grids, both concealing and disclosing information. But there is much more than just surface to Binion’s work; the works are self-portraits as much as they are abstract compositions.

Installation view: Hand:Work:II, 2019. Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong. May 22 – July 6, 2019. 
Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

In Binion’s Hand:Work series, tiny photographic images of the artist’s hands at work are repeated numerous times, methodically organised into grids. His hands are placed this way and that, creating a woven hatching pattern with a visual rhythm. Many of the works are divided vertically into two equal sections, lighter and darker, like Ink:Work (2018) at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, a large painting, divided vertically into a red and blue grid that from a distance almost references colour field painting. A closer inspection reveals layers of colour and texture atop copies of handwritten numbers and names: Lois Markowitz, Peter Brown, Charles Mingus III. Friends, colleagues, people who have gone out of his life and those who have remained. Memories, moments and relationships past. Like the images of his hands, copies of lined and handwritten square sheets are pieced together the right way up, upside down, left and right. 

The repeated use of handwriting and the incorporation of images of the artist’s hand alludes to the manual labour that goes into each piece, as well as referencing the artist’s own biography. Binion was born in 1946 on a cotton farm in Macon, Mississippi, and started picking cotton at an
early age. His hands were always working. Later he found his
creative voice as a poet and writer, before discovering art. Words bleed across and down the surface of the board, reminiscent of the poems of modernist E E Cummings, where words tumble playfully down
the page, establishing a movement and tempo. Some images and words burst their way loudly through the structural conformity of the grid, while others recede behind it, sombre and quiet, creating a pulse and beat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the artist cites the beat writers of the 1950s, who found inspiration in jazz, as being among his favourites. Although the works visually take minimalism as a reference point, they are too personal and emotive to be minimalist, with emotion as their driving force. Their movement and sense of improvisation have more in common with jazz than minimalism or the political art that was expected of a black artist in the 70s.

In much the same way as jazz improvisation, Binion’s work is a conversation, sometimes with other artists who came before him, other times with the audience. But more often it’s a conversation with himself – between the past and the present, minimalism and the emotional, line and shape, structure and improvisation. Binion creates visual rhythm from the synthesis of binaries, weaving together abstraction and storytelling to create a hallmark vernacular and style, full of rhythm, repetition and visual syncopation.

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