McArthur Binion: DNA

The cover of McArthur Binion: DNA

McArthur Binion, DNA:Study:X, 2014, ink, oil paint stick, and paper on board, 64 x 46".
McArthur Binion, DNA:Study:X, 2014, ink, oil paint stick, and paper on board, 64 x 46″. McArthur Binion, DNA:Study:X, 2014, ink, oil paint stick, and paper on board, 64 x 46″.

MCARTHUR BINION EMPLOYED his tattered address book, containing nineteen years’ worth of annotated contact information, as the substrate of numerous paintings and prints in his series “DNA.” He produced color copies of the pages, sliced out the entries, and assembled them in vertical and horizontal patterns to form a collage grid over which he painted and drew. The Chicago-based artist began the project in 2013, when he was sixty-seven, and the choice of an address book—along with other personal effects like Binion’s birth certificate and photos of his childhood home—lends a strong sense of summation to otherwise abstract imagery. The handwriting that appears behind precisely geometrical lines isn’t often legible; you have to study the images, as if peering through bars, to note the numerous locales (93 Greene Street, 145 Spring) and names (Al Loving, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Olu Dara, Stanley Crouch). With this skeletal autobiography, Binion has chosen to imply rather than narrate his story—one charting his involvement in New York’s African American art scene during the ’70s and ’80s. In an interview included in this volume, he describes that time as one when “Black artists . . . my age . . . were primarily influenced by avant-garde music and people like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman.” While he says the address book contains “the loves, the hates, everything I am,” the paintings and prints offer only oblique clues—and even these are masked by the rigorously deployed grids. This is intimacy that invites yet frustrates scrutiny.

In the series, Binion explores many geometrical permutations—grids composed of rectangles or squares, rectangles within squares, squares within rectangles, grids inscribed with ovals and circles. Color, too, is used to denote shapes that sometimes divide an image into halves or quarters. An essay by Michael Stone-Richards highlights the methodical quality of Binion’s process and elucidates the artist’s coinage “underconscious” in relation to the role of material layered underneath the artworks. The reproductions can only suggest the enticingly tactile effect achieved through the use of oil stick, crayon, and graphite. But the book’s images still adequately represent a visual rhythm that feels both insistent and meditative. Like many pieces in the series, the palette of DNA:Study:X is restrained—brown, gray, and white. The paper-on-board composition stands more than five feet tall, so Binion’s writing and the address book’s printed headings are unavoidably prominent. Individual squares are divided up by five to seven slashes of paint, and the squares themselves are arranged into a rectangle. Closer inspection reveals another rectangle seemingly carved across the entire grid that, once discovered, leaves the viewer with a disquieting perception of imbalance, as the rectolinearity is subverted ever so slightly.

Binion’s meticulous effort marks each piece—the close handiwork of copying, cutting, collaging—and is especially manifest in the ambitious scope of the entire series. “Labor,” he declares in the interview, “has always been super important to the work.” Not surprisingly, the “underconscious” doesn’t yield its truths easily.