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It may be hard to imagine for some of us but the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan for many signaled the dawn of a hopeful era. In that spirit, the dancer Ben Vereen, fresh from his success as the star of the musical Pippin, agreed to perform at the inaugural gala along with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Donnie and Marie Osmond. A black performer entirely aware of the significance of his actions, he blacked his face to emulate the vaudeville era star Bert Williams and sang "Waiting for Robert E. Lee." At the end, he thanked the audience and offered to buy them a drink but, in the character of the older performer, he was denied service. The whole show was choreographed as a piece to be broadcast in its entirety. But the network edited the recording so that his thank you cut directly to Marie Osmond singing. On television, it appeared that Vereen had presented himself as a servile shuffle and jive act in front of the white and powerful.

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Edgar Arceneaux, "Until, Until, Until…", 2015
A Performa Commission
Photo by Paula Court
Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

That sad story, which impacted Vereen's reputation, remained largely hidden until it was retold by artist Edgar Arcenaux in 2015 at an award-winning staging at Performa, the arts festival held in New York.

A smaller version of that performance is being held this weekend in Culver City at Suzanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, where Arcenaux is also showing his art.

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Edgar Arceneaux, "Until, Until, Until…", 2015
A Performa Commission
Photo by Paula Court
Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

I stopped by last week for a preview. A pair of curtains is painted by Arcenaux with big trapezoids, the shape of a receding stage, one of which is barred like a jail cell. An actor will perform the role of Vereen as he performed Williams but with all the overtones of historical perspective. This is intercut with the original TV performance and newly recorded music. Arcenaux has constructed a bar where the dancer can go to offer his audience a drink.

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Edgar Arceneaux, "Jug I," 2017
Aluminum and top hat on wood
Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Running about an hour in length, the performance will touch on the ways in which history is lost, erased and misremembered. In fact, Arcenaux was able to sleuth his way to the full story through his friendship with artist Karon Davis, who is Vereen's daughter. After meeting Vereen and watching the entire original performance with him, Arcenaux recognized the value of retelling the aborted tale.

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Edgar Arceneaux, "Criminal," 2017
Early 20th century archival book, sugar crystals, mirror, on wood
Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Arcenaux's own art bears a tangential but significant connection to the performance and points to the reasons he was drawn to the story. Old, leather-bound law books partially coated in crystalized sugar are mounted individually on pedestals with mirror-coated tops. The sugar-coated words literally reflect themselves, decreasing their legibility and reliability.

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Edgar Arceneaux, "Faces in the Crowd," 2017
Dry erase marker on muslin
Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Arcenaux's renderings in black and white are actually done with dry erase pens on Mylar so that any part of the image that is wiped off and redrawn continues to hover like a shadow, the history of their making and remaking perpetually unstable. A particularly haunting vertical piece, inspired by a dream, features a long-legged table topped with some pieces of wood and an old cash register. His life-size drawing of a rotting fence is dotted with plaintive scrawled graffiti like "I'm sorry please forgive me." At the top of the fence, a chunk is missing and reveals a distant mountain top, the unreachable but desirable sublime. Arcenaux operates from a position of muted suggestion rather than overt declamation, invitation rather than argument. Yet, the message gets across.

The premiere of Arcenaux's play is Friday night, June 2, and is a benefit to subsidize his plan to take the show to cities in the red states. Tickets that night are $150. It is also offered Saturday and Sunday nights for $30 through Eventbrite.

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Samuel Levi Jones, "Dark Truths," 2017
Deconstructed medical books, canvas and wood
Courtesy of the artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Patron Gallery

The use of old books continues in a parallel exhibition at the gallery, One Blood, by Chicago-based artist Samuel Levi Jones. Taking apart academic medical text books, literally dismantling the assumption of authority or objectivity, he collages the fabric from the covers onto large backgrounds to make a pattern of rectangles in pale, faded colors. From a short distance away, they look like geometric abstract paintings. On closer inspection, they relate to quilts. Closer still, you see the wear of time, the disintegration of threads and dyes and markings. He also uses books in his sculptures, building pedestals of them and covering them in colored paper pulp. Both attack notions of neutrality in earlier modern art. As in the works by Arcenaux, history is both inherent and veiled.

Both shows continue to July 1.

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