LondonDerek Fordjour: The House Always Wins
Josh Lilley presents The House Always Wins, American artist Derek Fordjour’s first full solo exhibition in the UK. The exhibition comprises a new series of paintings across the two floors of the 44-46 Riding House Street galleries, an immersive installation entitled In Memoriam inaugurating our new 40-42 Riding House Street space, and Storefront, a street-facing sculpture spanning the gallery’s extended picture windows, transforming the neighbourhood.
The House Always Wins adopts its title from the world of casino gaming and the lopsided deal of the ‘house edge’. The house edge describes the built-in advantage of a casino operation. No matter how long the player tries, no matter how much he bets, he doesn’t win. There is no way to beat the house.
The space of gaming becomes allegorical for the quandary of identity. More than a gambling term or an economic principle, within the context of Fordjour’s work the idea of The House Always Wins is also an emotional state, one that questions practical notions of fairness and equality alongside holistic, societal notions of opportunity and progress. The three discrete moods and methods of the exhibition each tie back to the theme of the crummy deal that faces the gambler or, indeed, anyone trying to beat a rigged system.
Fordjour’s new paintings depict competitors and performers, protected and elevated by their uniforms, proud of their accomplishments and risking it all. They move in harmony, in the rippling diagonals of swimmers filling the lanes of a pool, or display the vanquished through their spoils, like the boxer with his championship belts draped over his shoulders. A conductor holds the actions of an undepicted orchestra at the tips of his fingers, an electric place of power and responsibility. A rower, that quintessential 19th-century striver of Thomas Eakins’ America, is alone with the water. The boat’s name is “Ayiti”, the French Creole word for Haiti.
Storefront, the sculpture across the gallery’s newly extended facade, is an artwork and spectacle that meets the people on the street 24 hours a day. Pulling from the commercial practice of window display and advertising, Fordjour presents a collection of nearly 1500 individual units populated with miniature handblown glass balloons and figurines cast in plaster, dirt, resin and iron. Blinking lights beckon the attention of passersby in red and blue drawn from the colours of the Union Jack, the stars and stripes and the democratic ideals first espoused by the French. The wooden structure is a stripped, calcifying white, a pointed reference to a growing tide of racial and ethnic animus taking the form of aggressive anti-immigration policy in the western world.
In Memoriam, the installation in the new galleries, is an enclosed spiral canopy draped in industrial tent fabric. The floor is packed dirt. A succession of sculptures of a hanging bust, suspended in a bicycle-tire halo, lead to a ferris wheel, rotating slowly, with glass balloons hanging down. A South African Methodist hymn plays. Small spotlights on the sculptures are the only light. Incense burns.
The installation is an internal, personal space, inspired by the artist’s recent travel through South Africa, where the artist visited townships in Cape Town, the diamond mines of Kimberely, and Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. While on this journey researching the history of Apartheid and its subsequent societal effects, Fordjour suffered the loss of a childhood friend. Unable to attend the funeral and thousands of miles that day from the place he knows as home, Fordjour wept when he heard the hymn, Letsha, that plays in the space. In Memoriam encapsulates the grief of personal loss and the historical magnitude of black suffering, and he offers it as a public shrine and place of momentary reflection.
Derek Fordjour (b. 1974, Memphis, Tennessee) is a graduate of Morehouse College, Atlanta; the Graduate School of Education, Harvard University; and Hunter College, New York. He has received commissions for public projects from the Whitney Museum Billboard Project and from the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York City for a permanent installation at the 145th Street Subway Station in Harlem. He was the 2016 Sugar Hill Museum Artist in-Residence, a resident of the 2017 Sharpe Walentas Studio Program in New York City, and was awarded the 2018 Deutsche Bank NYFA Fellowship. His work is held in collections throughout Europe and the United States, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Perez Art Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Fordjour frequently serves as a lecturer at institutions and as a Core Critic at Yale University School of Art. In January 2020 he will be the subject of a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis.
all images © the gallery and the artist(s)