Raleigh native André Leon Gray opens “no polite disguise,” his new exhibit on race in America, at the Carrack Modern Art in Durham.
DURHAM André Leon Gray’s latest exhibit, “no polite disguise,” is about revelation. Maybe yours.
“Since the election, it’s like the veil of the idea that we were in a post-racial America has lifted,” he says of the show’s title. “You see the violence and hate we show each other. The bandage has been ripped off and we’re seeing the hidden, simmering America.”
Although one of the works does reference the president, it wouldn’t be quite accurate to say the mixed-media artist’s show at Durham’s Carrack Modern Art is a response to the new administration. In fact, some of the pieces were created years ago.
Instead, Gray considers them the reality those veils were shielding.
And so, like reality, the work is both simple and layered; each piece can seem blunt and yet, poignant. There’s “MVP,” a basketball, painted black, and split open to reveal that it’s stuffed with cotton. “Exit Stage Alt-Right,” a 2011 piece he’s updated, features a 2008 Washington Post proclaiming Barack Obama’s election victory. On either side, as silent commentary, are the theater masks of comedy and tragedy; in tragedy’s mouth is an American flag painted black, hanging upside down — a sign of distress. A jar symbolically holding a shredded version of the Constitution sits on the floor nearby.
The most complex piece might be “Somebody said you are from nowhere. Is that true?” A meditation on knowledge and heritage, it manages to evoke the past, the present and the future with disparate items like an orange traffic cone in a school chair that mimics a dunce cap, a toy “Star Wars” fighter that plays a speech by Malcolm X, and a mathematical equation Gray created to express racial inequality.
A Raleigh native who lives in his childhood home, Gray will also present a short video called “build/destroy” that looks at the damage in his community caused by March’s five-alarm fire in downtown Raleigh. He was working the night it happened, and grabbed his phone to film the intense flames through the glass doors of his studio. In that event’s themes of destruction and displacement, Gray sees parallels to the area’s gentrification.
It’s an apt perspective for Gray who started out as a photographer; even then he would get old doors and windows and create, a process he soon discovered, he says with a laugh, that was a lot cheaper than photography. Still, he’s kept the documentary instinct, and the desire to capture images he doesn’t typically see and tell stories he doesn’t always hear.
“Prince said that the purpose of art is either to discourage or enlighten,” Gray says, referencing the late musician. “I want to enlighten. I am bringing my own experiences to the conversation. My main concern is the human condition.”