By Tris McCall
What gets discovered during a police search? Evidence, if the cops are lucky. But for every clue unearthed by the authorities, the beam of the flashlight falls on thousands of objects that have no salience to the case. Those whose homes have been subject to police examination find their private lives laid bare: things that aren’t necessarily illegal, but are nonetheless kept secret, are exposed to eyes trained to pry. If it happened to you, would you feel mortified, or enraged, or defiant?
“SEARCHING.,” a show that’ll hang at the Project for Empty Space (800 Broad Street) until May 29, approaches this question with the directness of a billy club knock at the front door. Artist Damien Davis turns a neat trick: he prompts the viewer to identify, simultaneously, with the investigator penetrating the sanctum of the home and the resident under scrutiny. Davis’s crime drama traces the trajectory of the heavy hand of law enforcement as it falls with a thwack on people of color. His show, which unfolds in a gallery darkened by heavy curtains over the windows, simulates the experience of a police raid in an African-American neighborhood. Visitors are handed little flashlights. Thirteen objects assembled from sheets of fluorescent acrylic glow softly under a blacklight, awaiting further illumination.
Damien Davis’s pieces aren’t slices of reality. But they aren’t particularly abstract, either. Though they speak in a coded language, they’ll be legible to anybody familiar with the iconography of race in America. As soon as the beam tickles the sheer plastic surfaces of these three-dimensional pieces in the dark, ordinary objects materialize and shine: basketballs and dollar bills, West African masks and Afro picks, hoodies, houseplants, heads sporting black hairstyles. Some pop off of the walls and greet the spotlight with impertinence, while others remain shy, obscured behind layers of plastic. Are these pieces of a greater puzzle, or just the daily mess associated with ordinary living? Are they under investigation simply because they’re there; is there a justification for our gaze? Are these “clues” sinister, or are they only suspicious because of their association with blackness?
The presentation of “SEARCHING.” is inspired, and pretty clever, too. Darkening the room doesn’t just turn visitors into detectives. It entices viewers to become active participants in the complex process of seeing. Gallery-goers at the Project for Empty Space cannot be passive attendees: they’re engaged in a physical act of meaning-making, following their eyes and their hands as they guide their beams around these glow-in-the-dark interiors. In this way — and in a few others, too — Davis reveals a not-so-secret sympathy for the investigator. He’d like you to look at his artwork with the care and discernment of a riddle-solver. Amidst the jumble of plastic objects held together by shiny, stainless-steel nuts and bolts are replica flashlights and their cone-like radiance. The viewer isn’t merely crossing beams with a fellow member of the squad. She’s encountering the artist, who is modeling the behavior he’d like to see, and screwing it into a place of prominence.
Damien Davis, Studio at Project for Empty Space (2022), by Becca Guzzo
Photo courtesy of Project for Empty Space
But mostly, “SEARCHING” saves its compassion for the people under investigation. They’ve been pulled from their daily lives and find themselves at the mercy of the state, with all activities laid bare, and all that was once concealed spilled out into the open. In “24 Hour Hold,” a pair of desperate men hoist their hands skyward in a gesture of surrender to the police as a pair of clocks glower overhead. “Late Night Lineup” positions a trio of heads, upside down, beneath the unbudging loops of handcuffs. In “Recidivism,” another two people decked in outfits that resemble prison jumpsuits are caught red-handed on either side of a flaming urn. Twitter checkmarks and computer power-up buttons suggest monitoring of online activity, particularly hook-ups. Many of the African-American faces in “SEARCHING.” are in the act of kissing, and their intimate moments are shattered by the intrusion of the police lights and cops proceeding with indifference to the precarity of the sexual connection. Though Davis’s faces are often gender-indeterminate, sometimes it’s pretty clear we’re looking at same-sex couples.
Which brings us to another major theme of “SEARCHING.” — the surveillance and tacit criminalization of queer desire. Privacy is essential to people exploring their sexuality. When it’s ripped away from those people by authorities who might not approve or understand, there goes their dignity, too. As we feel our way around these pieces, our beams fall on ribbed dildos, butt-plugs, coiled snakes, phallic symbols, and fertility statues with long, pendulous genitals. Some of the men with their hands up have their penises bare. One, caught in a beam in “On the Grind,” appears to be ejaculating.
None of this is handled crudely. Instead, it’s rendered with humility, compassion, and sensitivity to the vulnerability of queer people and queer bodies. Opening up to another person and exposing one’s self is an act of bravery, and it carries with it an undercurrent of pathos and fear: what if we’re discovered? Will we be disowned by a community and a society that still isn’t comfortable with intimacy between men? When the cops barge in on people who’ve taken that step into the unknown, it’s more than a simple violation of privacy. It’s enforcement of the borders of sexual behavior, and an aggressive push in the direction of normality. “SEARCHING.” argues that people — and people of color in particular — have a right to pleasure, and that right can only flourish if their privacy is respected. By handing the flashlight to you, the visitor, Davis has made you complicit in the curtailment of those rights. But you’ve seen what you’ve seen. What you do with what you’ve learned is up to you.
Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, NJArts, Jersey Beat, the Jersey Journal, the Jersey City Times, the Jersey City Reporter, the Jersey City Independent, and NewJersey.com. He also writes about things that have no relevance to New Jersey. Not today, though. He can be reached at email@example.com.