Nina Johnson is proud to present Ritual, a show of new paintings by New York-based artist Derek Fordjour, opening on March 16 with a public reception and remaining on view until April 28. These vividly patterned works reveal figures caught between states of revelry and solemnity. Fordjour explores different aspects of rituals: representation, preparation, performance, and preservation. The paintings examine how social dynamics solidify into hierarchies and teams, exploring visual codes used throughout history to perpetuate, and challenge, social order.
Fordjour’s paintings are built up through the accumulation of newspaper, bits of paper, and an underlayer of hand-cut cardboard tiles. The surfaces are thickly colored with oil and acrylic as well as lush applications of oil pastel. His palette is either muted, with dark, muddied earth tones, or bursting with color. The resulting visual effect is fractured in a way that evokes a parade ground littered with confetti bits, the day after the fervor and festivities have passed. These canvases’ slightly derelict feel harkens back to childhood in Memphis, a city blighted by poverty and racial strife, wherein the effects of white flight marked many of the buildings he occupied with the ruinous effects of previous ownership. Fordjour, born to immigrant parents from Ghana, also recalls sending old clothing home to relatives in Africa. The buildings of his youth and the old clothing sent to Ghana would both be made new again through a prideful investment of meager means, giving them new life. Likewise, his paintings rise triumphantly above their tatters—excavating joy, making the most out of very little, a condition Fordjour asserts is central in black and brown communities.
Ritual features a selection of Fordjour’s Players, a portrait series he has expanded over the years. These small portraits of men of color are titled by number. Designed to mimic aesthetics and dimensions of trading cards or headshots, the Playerspaintings move through the market, revealing through the fluctuations of value and desire the vulnerability of black and brown bodies. Similarly, a painting like “Couplet 35,” is a diptych composed of two separate but related panels. Fordjour’s Couplets, an extension of the Players series, invite comparison and contrast through a game of looking and “profiling.” The conceptual premise in the work rests on the notion that recalling detail from the left panel could very well become confused like the right and vice versa. Historically and contemporaneously, such acts of recall, profiling and mistaken identity have fatal implications for many people of color.
Beyond their purposefully weathered materials, these paintings have a strong connection to both social and art history. The portraiture of John Singer Sargent and Robert Henri finds its way in, as does the tumultuous brio of James Ensor. The blocks of color nod toward Jacob Lawrence, while that movement-in-time line work channels Degas’ sketches of dancers. The emptiness of Hopper, the expanses of Hart Benton, the textural zeitgeist of Wayne Thiebaud: the references combine and split to create something unique. Take the patterning, the repeated diamonds Fordjour places throughout his work. There is the reference to Picasso’s forlorn Harlequins, but they also refer to the sordid, forgotten history of black jockeys in this country—a privileged class of African Americans midstep between social strata. And then, of course, the patterns represent the notion of patterning itself—taking something and repeating it over and over again, be it a painted shape, a longstanding tradition, a ritual. Commonly defined as a set of actions performed according to a prescribed order, Fordjour interrogates this notion of ritual through the act of tearing down and building up over time and through layers in hopes of revealing inherent truth.