Though it actively defies tidy categorization, Thames’s work courts the eye, mind and memory with what must be called a post soul poetics. The impulse of the generation following the civil rights generation toward the use of 1960s and 1970s iconography loosened from its original context, floating now in the popular lexicon, newly defined by Thames in a way that maintains historical resonance, but also imbues it with a fresh interpretation. - Key Jo Lee, Graduate Fellow of Art History and African American Studies at Yale University.
Jenkins Johnson Gallery, New York is proud to present Mixtape, the first New York solo exhibition by multimedia artist Felandus Thames. Mississippi-born Felandus Thames, who received his Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale University, creates a broad and varied body of artwork that includes photography, painting, screen-printing, multimedia works, and installations. His diverse oeuvre references American and cultural history to create a narrative around race, politics, culture, and history. The works in Mixtape make use of Harlem Renaissance poetry, modern hip hop lyrics, Jazz poetry, spoken word performance, and African American archetypes to draw parallels between historical and contemporary African American identity.
In Thames’ important new work, I Would Rather Be, children’s wooden blocks are painted matte black and arranged in a monochromatic and modernist grid. Key Jo Lee states of the work, “The modest size of the blocks yield an intimately scaled object that necessitates close inspection. In it we find that the 2Pac lyric, ‘I rather be nigga so we can get drunk and smoke [weed] all day’, has interrupted the planar uniformity. The utterance, simultaneously old and new, of stereotypical blackness is one that our social liberality might bristle against, but which persists and refuses evasion. A single word has been excised from the lyric, ‘I’d rather be ya nigga…’, meant to be a statement of seduction. The excision undoes the gender specificity of the statement and makes it a statement of desire to be a nigga, yours or not, period. That we must stand close to it, lean in to read its covert message amplifies its meaning, the ‘I’ becomes the viewer/reader and as such the desire—voiced aloud or internally—becomes our own.“ In a similar work, Gil Scott-Heron, The Bitter Truth Lives On, these same painted wooden blocks reveal a quote from Gil Scott-Heron, an American soul and jazz poet, musician, and author known for his work as a spoken word performer in the 1970s and 1980s. Likewise, in his recent “Harlem Prose” series, Thames illustrates verses by Harlem Renaissance poet Melvin B. Tolson through the painstaking removal of bristles from hair brushes.
“An unyieldingly shiny grid of mirrored disco ball tiles serve as the base for Say It Loud,” states Key Jo Lee. In this piece, the phrase “Say it Loud” is hand painted in matte black letters in a bubbly disco-era font. Lee writes, “The lettering disrupts the reflective surface created by the tiles, but also doubles the groovy, funky, feel-good potential of the piece in sharp distinction from the dark motives of ‘I Rather Be Nigga’. Those squares of glass reveal the viewer in multiple, discontinuous fragments mimicking the fragmentary nature of the phrase atop them that further occludes the viewer’s visage. We never get to see the ‘I’m black and I’m proud’ that typically concludes ‘Say it Loud’, though we might still say it to those motley bits of ourselves. Seemingly dissimilar from ‘I Rather Be Nigga’, ‘Say It Loud’ also affects a corrupted vision of the spectator through black paint.”
Mixtape will also feature a seminal series of text-based work inspired by the work of Robert Indiana, entitled “Thug”. Done in neon, silkscreen, vinyl, and painting, the works feature repetitions of the word. These “Thug” pieces harken back to Thames’ thesis show at Yale, which featured multiple representations of lips as a means to address depictions of African-American beauty. Here, Thames embraces the word thug, typically ascribed to African-American male youths, and breaks it down through a variety of duplications to remove its meaning.
Felandus Thames is in countless public and private collections, including the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson and The Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center; Jackson. Thames will participate in the Mississippi Museum of Art’s exhibition Artist By Artist in September 2012 and has been selected by the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, MI, to participate in the travelling exhibition Visions of our 44th President, a collective sculptural show in which artists decorate busts of President Barack Obama to celebrate the historical significance of our first African American President. Thames is the recipient of Travel Grant Awards, Mini Grants, and Individual Artist Fellowships from the Mississippi Arts Commission and The Greater Jackson Arts Council. He has completed commissions for the City of Jackson, Mississippi, Office of the Mayor; University of Mississippi Medical Center; Jackson Medical Mall Foundation; and Medgar Evers Institute, among others. Thames’ work has been featured at the Mississippi Museum of Art Jackson, MS; National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN; Yale University, New Haven, CT; and Walker’s Point Center for the Arts in Milwaukee, WI. His work has been reviewed twice by the New York Times and will be featured in the forthcoming International Review of African American Art. This summer, in anticipation of his New York solo exhibition at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery, two high profile MoMA collector organizations attended studio visits with Thames. Thames currently lives and works in New York.