Every art object presents a situation in which numerous forces intersect—artist, viewer, and place/context are all active players in the field. Sometimes only aesthetics matter; sometimes concept determines formal choices. To see an object without thinking about the invisible factors behind it—spirituality, gender, race, class, ethnicity, geography, history—is to have a reductive and impoverished view of that object. These considerations add depth and complexity while also making particular demands on the viewer.
The title of Paul S. Briggs’s recent show, “Intuitive Responses: Poetic Justice in Clay” hints at only a small part of what to expect from this complex body of work. At a time when irony is a mainstream aesthetic force and the art object is frequently made coherent via the glitter of popular culture, work such as Briggs’s is rare and strangely daring. Abstraction becomes a visual manifestation of poetry, bearing literary notions of metaphor and symbolism.
In entirely abstract terms, the featured works concern themselves with racial realities and Blackness. Facing an indefensible inequity, Briggs wrestles with it until he finds some strange beauty. Like Noah Purifoy and Melvin Edwards, Briggs engages abstraction as a tool to critique systemic racism. The context for his most striking objects was shaped by the reality of institutional racism and the plague of Black male incarceration—the reality of living in a world where a Black man can be choked to death for selling a “loosie.” Many of these works were informed by Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, as well as by visits that Briggs made to prisons.
Six sculptures in particular explored these issues. They are part of a series based in Briggs’s experiences as a Black man, an educator, and someone once engaged in ministerial work, though he looks past his personal story to contend with a racist policy that continues to cost people their lives. The imagery developed from what Briggs calls the “cell persona,” referring to certain habits of mind, aspects of personality, and the stigma and lasting social disenfranchisement resulting from incarceration—all conditioned by prison experience or the threat of it. Each sculpture is constructed in the form of a prison cell, with four upright posts barred on all sides. Everything inside the bars is supported or suspended from this ceramic structure. The knotted ends of the interior clay forms protrude slightly beyond the bars. By juxtaposing tangible text (written mainly by Black women poets) and abstract imagery, Briggs reinforces his intended meaning. The poems refract and intensify the imagery, taking what’s present into more conceptual territory.
Specifically addressing the reality and the pain of “Black profiling,” Briggs sees his work as a form of Black “sign language.” His sculptures encapsulate what social abstraction can look like—didactic, metaphorical, beautiful, and symbolically focused on a single issue—echoing Ralph Ellison’s famous statement: “I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.”