Two Coats of Paint – Allen-Golder Carpenter: Winter in America

Contributed by Mary Jones / Allen-Golder Carpenter’s debut NYC show, “To Dream of Smoke, examines the aesthetics of hip-hop culture as a window into “masculinity, pride, posturing, incarceration, censorship and social programming.” A gender non-conforming interdisciplinary artist, activist, and poet born in Washington, DC, in 1999, Carpenter’s view is personal and close to home. Their work centers on rap music as a vibrant expression of Black culture, including the discomfiting relationship rap often has to violence as a statement of manhood, and the subsequent trap of prison. Carpenter explores the unrealistic expectations that many young Black people develop when drawn to an aesthetic that glamorizes violence, money, and fame. They deliver a complex message with the brutal declarations of an activist, but also the compassion of a poet.  

Among the 14 pieces in the show, including a book and a collaborative audio piece by Carpenter and Blackhaine, there are three small pieces from 2024 titled Switch 1Switch 2, and Switch 3. These key images are screen-grabbed pictures of fingers holding a small black plastic object, which Carpenter identifies this object as the “switch … an illegal black-market attachment for Glock handguns that, when attached, converts them into fully automatic weapons.” He further explains: “Its name appears frequently in the lyrics of many street rap songs… Most people have no idea what it is and couldn’t identify it even from looking at the photos, but this object that’s no larger than a quarter, could land you in prison for close to a decade if you’re unlucky enough to be caught with one.” 

The Race 1 epitomizes the connection between rap and violence. Here Carpenter creates on the floor an abstract weapon: a laser level encased in two pieces of steel. The level shines its light over a photoprint of the rapper Tay-K, shown with a rifle and weapon light that resemble the laser. The light moves towards two shattered mirrors, one rearview and the other handheld, then continues up the wall to eye-level, where there are two small adjacent inkjet prints. One is the pixelated image of Tay-K’s Instagram post from prison (with more than a million likes), the other a certification of his platinum single “The Race,” which dropped the day of his arrest on murder charges. He was 17 at the time. For Carpenter, the pixelation of photos of rappers, which occurs frequently throughout the show, indicates censorship and the perverseness of courts accepting rap lyrics as evidence against the artists – a reflection of the racial prejudice whereby Black rappers are generally assumed to be criminals. 

Carpenter’s choice of materials is notably potent and specific. He uses the scavenged, repurposed, cheaply manufactured, and photocopied stuff of the over-industrialized world, stark realities imbued with symbolic punch. They are palpable manifestations of Carpenter’s view that “we live in a time where it seems like exhaustion and disposability are at an all-time high.” A bag of powdered sugar wearing a black ski mask is combined with a grid of 30 photocopied pages that complete the image of rap artist Q Da Fool leaning against the wall in Untitled (Self Portrait).  In I Choose Violence, two kinds of digital scales are placed on the floor directly beneath two eye-level photos of incarcerated rapper Glokk40Spaz. The first scale is a rather typical bathroom type and represents the rise of eating disorders in the male Black community; the second is the kind used to weigh drugs. They could also reference the weight of a choice made by a teenager with a gun, or the dubious scales of justice. 

The materials of Race 2 are equally resonant. This piece is a rectangular grid, vertically suspended, made of 32 of the plastic bags used for the personal belongings of inmates when they arrive at prison. The bags are draped over a steel rod, so we only see half of them. The 16 bags facing the viewer make up a frontal image of Tay-K, those on the opposite side his image from behind. Included in each bag are bits of broken, tempered glass and shreds of white cloth, representing the white tank tops worn by many Black men. Poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Pieces of a Man” has been an influential source for Carpenter’s visual symbolism for the body: Black lives shattered by racial injustice. Stone Soldier 1 is a white dress shirt, price tag still attached, fused with a cement cast of a bulletproof vest. Carpenter has no use for pedestals, either functionally or metaphorically, and this piece, like the self-portrait, leans between the wall and the floor the way a body would. Their Instagram post shows someone wearing the vest, unable to breathe under its weight.  

Carpenter finds many pieces to the puzzle of our times, to the measure of a man, and to the opportunistic, predatory forces that attempt to direct his fate. They are careful not to condone violence, but look clearly at the powerful circumstances that perpetuate it. While Scott-Heron’s song “Winter in America” talks about a chill that’s settled in this country, a “season of ice” that’s here to stay, Carpenter’s work is crackling with the energy that they find in the family and community they honor.  As Carpenter says, “as the pieces must be reassembled, there lies the potential for something new, and even beautiful to emerge.”

Allen-Golder Carpenter: To Dream of Smoke,” No Gallery, 105 Henry Street, Store #4, New York, NY. Through April 7, 2024.

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