Born in rural Mississippi, McArthur Binion found his way to the center of the SoHo arts scene in 1970s New York. Unlike some of his friends and contemporaries, however, he didn’t find tremendous fame or fortune. Nevertheless, now in his 70s and based in Chicago, he recently returned to the gallery circuit with a well-received show that called into question his exclusion from the art world’s upper echelon.
Using oil sticks, crayons, and laser-printed images of personal and legal documents, Binion creates mixed-media works filled with geometric patterns and flashes of abstract expressionism. In particular, his “DNA” paintings and prints mine the content of his life by excising pages from his address book and collaging them with copies of his birth certificate, passport, and assorted forms of ID. He uses an oil paint stick to accentuate certain marks and words, leaving a complex interplay of color, texture, and autobiography.
The striking combination of official typeset and handwritten bits—including names and addresses of the various art world cognoscenti he has befriended over the years—poses critical questions about identity and community. What is identity made of? How does it form in a society hardened by so many other identities? And, as a black man—let alone a black artist—how has it been restricted and overlooked?
The son of farmers, Binion spent much of his childhood working in a field, picking cotton. As curator Lowery Stokes Sims writes in an enlightening essay about his “DNA” series, the discrete plots in Binion’s work suggest “parcels of furrowed land, bringing us back to Binion’s childhood on his family’s farm.”
Sims also homes in on the recurring crosshatch marks, noting how they “mimic interwoven elements seen in basketry or fiber work.” Likewise, Binion has spoken of the energy he draws from bebop improvisation, and his work similarly displays traces of the African-American tradition of quilt-making.
As Sims notes, Binion’s work is about neither “purely objective abstract patterns” nor simple “subjective handwork and highly personal information.” Rather, it relies on the synergistic union of all three.
His abstract works may fit into the modernist tradition, but by using his own autobiographical material as a foundation, he complicates the paradigm, boldly charting out his own identity in the process.