Edgar Arceneaux at The Henry

On Friday I took the the train to the University of Washington to see the FIrst Official Art exhibition I’ve visited since landing in Seattle on the day before New Year’s Eve. When I say landing, of course I mean stopping, as we most certainly didn’t fly here. After a week of the wide open vistas of the west, the barren Martian landscape of the southern tip of Nevada and eastern California, and the slow climb into the green mountains of the northwest, I felt like my eyes needed a physical adjustment. Blinking with disbelief at the mountains on the horizon here, I required something human-scaled and human-made to pull me back from my windstruck awe of the vastness of our country. Edgar Arceneaux’ Library of Black Lies was just the installation to accomplish this.


Edgar Arceneaux (U.S., born 1972). Library of Black Lies. 2016 .Wood, mirrored glass, mylar, newspaper, hard-bound books, sugar crystals, lighting fixtures, audio component. Courtesy of the artist. [installation view in EdgarArceneaux: Library of Black Lies, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. 2018]. Photo: Mark Woods, courtesy of the Henry.

From it’s clunky exterior, Arceneaux intended for his installation to resemble a “cabin in the woods,” and it’s warm but roughly hewn planks accomplish this. Light spills from within the slats of wood, a glimmer of the jewel-like interior. Works like Arceneaux’s have become more normative in recent years, with the recognition of the museum’s origins as a place of wonder, discovery, and even trepidation. The artist has distilled this trend brilliantly in the visual vernacular of this work, which includes rich textures, dramatic lighting, scuffed golden mirrors and literary volumes overgrown like geodes with sugar crystals…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

To enter The Library of Black Lies, the viewer must discover its opening-a small, narrow passage through which one ducks into a taller, even more mysterious space. The first ‘books’ we encounter in the library are charred lumps. A didactic video of the artist later informed me that he was thinking of the lost knowledge of the famous wonder of the world Library of Alexandria, which burned in 48 BCE. Along similar lines, I thought of the libraries of patricians at Pompeii, filled with the irreplaceable knowledge of the ancient world. Napoleon’s soldiers used many of the charred chunks as fuel for their fires. One wonders how many times we humans have had to learn the same truths simply because we are incapable of physically holding onto knowledge.


Another twist around the labyrinth brings me in view of a familiar set of books, the very Bible study story books my mother read to me from as a child.  A handsome white Jesus stares from the cover into the middle distance, Arceneaux’s first send-up to the concept of “truth” contained within these volumes. Thanks to the scuffed golden mirrors the artist has installed at odd angles in the Library…, we not only encounter the volumes Arceneaux has included, but also our own image, over and over again. Like anyone gaining knowledge, we are forced to confront our own preconceptions.

As the library winds inward, it becomes dense with texts partially obscured by glistening sugar crystals, which continue to aspirate and grow even as the piece is exhibited. Anthropological texts, dictionaries and other ‘dispassionate’ texts allude to the veneer of respectability that has contributed to a racist system. The final tomes at the center of the maze are authored by disgraced comedian Bill Cosby-books on love, marriage and fatherhood. Encrusted by tooth-rotting crystals, Cosby peers confidently from the covers.


The Library of Black Lies is everything at once: physically beautiful and layered with meaning. I went inside to contemplate something I thought of often as we barreled across nearly two-thousand miles of a landscape forever changed-governmentally, demographically, culturally, and environmentally-by our presence here. Knowledge, like all human effects, is an accretion and a construction. Library of Black Lies gives us one of the most potent lessons for the present-try as we might to burn down the past and move confidently into the future, parts of us are indelibly marked by the past-and only through thorough and painstaking investigation of this can we begin to move forward into a more honest and just future.

link to the Henry’s Insta feed for images:

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