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I AM A MAN. Am I Next . #BlackLivesMatter. WAR?

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A review of Charles Mason III, Free Man By Angela N. Carroll

Targets, protest signs, wood, and hashtags. Acrylic paint, pen, and spray paint. My eyes scanned the walls looking for a place to start in the gallery.

Free Man: They said I was free, the debut solo exhibition of Charles Mason III, deconstructs and reimagines the material culture of civil rights movements. In Maryland Art Place’s second floor gallery, Mason uses accessible, basic materials to interrogate notions of freedom and black male identity in America, establishing a clear relationship between the exhibit’s aesthetic and cultural organizing.

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Walking towards the work, I tripped over a wooden box, wrapped in a thick metal chain. The chain-choked soapbox was untitled. At random intervals during the opening reception, the artist rearranged and rattled the box.

Out of context, it could have meant anything. What does a box with a chain really mean? Social media is our soapbox. Cyberspace is a virtual, simulated environment we share and troll. Comfortable and complacent in our homes, on our phones, commenting, reading or swiping our finger at will, we consciously contribute to the Google archive as if nothing were at stake. But hasn’t freedom always been at stake?

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Free Man features two collections: the Open Season Series, the I AM Series, and three stand-alone works, “What am I fighting for?”, “I was trying to be deep”, and “Not My Name”.

The I AM Series invokes the affirming historical statement I AM A MAN and repeats it like a mantra, in varying fonts, across a dozen white, red and black paper pages. Almost identical to Glenn Ligon’s poignant collection Untitled ( I Am A Man), 1988, Mason’s reinterpretation does little to contribute a contemporary perspective on a conversation birthed from strikes led by African American sanitation workers in the sixties. If nothing else, I AM Series is a subdued rumination on the current state of race relations in America.

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“Not My Name”, one of the first pieces you see upon entering, is a modest repurposed wood and chalk installation featuring a scrawled manifesto on naming. When I asked Mason why he felt the need to include a piece about the word Nigger/a, he responded, “The worst thing you can do is be an educated brother or woman. The worst thing I can be is not a nigger.” “Not My Name” is a direct confrontation with the descriptor and with those who would perpetuate the use of it in relation to formations of black masculinity.

“What am I fighting for?” and “I was trying to be deep”, the largest pieces in the collection, employ dense acrylics on un-stretched canvas. The first depicts the Black Nationalist flag with white crosses instead of stars. “I was trying to be deep” is a brown, blue, and crimson minimalist flag abstraction likened to the works of Mondrian, Rothko, or Mehretu, but with looser, at some points unresolved, use of line and space, and a muddier palette. As such, this piece seemed like a forced experiment in abstraction disconnected from the rest of the show.

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I kept coming back to the Open Season Series, a four-canvas collection of spray paint and pen rendered targets. Each canvas posed questions about black mortality. “#BlackLivesMatter” arches above one target. “I AM A MAN” is boldly stenciled atop the next. Red paint splatters from the center of another target and drips off the canvas.

The graphic rendering of the targets and the bluntness of the text above achieve a visceral impact. Tiny scribbles surround each target. To read it, a viewer must stand in the crosshairs of the target, to become a targeted body, and to position oneself in the line of danger. The header of another target reads, “Am I Next?” The artist’s statement is clear: if you are black, brown or other in America, you could easily be next.

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As an exhibit, Free Man functions like the small untitled soapbox in the gallery. It is simultaneously unassuming and critical, dated and urgent, inheriting a long tradition of dialog about civil liberties.

As millions of Americans attempt the pursuit of life, love, liberty and good constitutionally mandated democracy, citizens in the margins must pose the question daily, Am I free? Questions about freedom are as traditionally American as apple pie, cotton, and lead-riddled water in poor cities. They are also as Post-Colonially African as pillaged tungsten, diamonds, and climate change famished farmland. These questions are as ubiquitous as a rifle or machete in the hands of children in the Islamic State’s army, as common as mass immigration throughout Europe catalyzed by decades of war throughout Africa and the Middle East, and as female as challenges to reproductive rights all over the world. All are inquiries that continually trouble domestic and international discourse and activism.

Disturbingly telling, Free Man contributes to this important and pressing dialogue about freedom, its challenges, and the signs and signifiers of those who fight for its survival.

Free Man: A solo exhibition of Charles Mason III is on display at Maryland Art Place, until February 27th, 2016.

Author Angela N. Carroll is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of contemporary culture.
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