Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is an exhibition that develops at the threshold between personal and political circumstance, taking as its subject the artist’s own childhood, his experience as a father, and the landscape of social action that has unfolded in the United States with the Black Lives Matter movement. Marking his first venture into sculpture, Spann mines the broad history of activism across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in works that diffuse the boundaries between public and private life; between abstraction and figuration; and between symbolic and literal meaning.
The exhibition borrows its name from a classic children’s bedtime prayer that originated in the 18th century and that the artist himself recited nightly as a child. The prayer begins: Now I lay me down to sleep/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep. The last two lines refer directly to death: If I die before I wake/ I pray the Lord my soul to take. Here, Spann treats sleep as an extended metaphor which plays out across the exhibition’s works: sleep emerges as a symbol for the innocence of childhood, the finality of death, and the blind eye of bigotry and indifference.
At David Castillo Gallery, Spann presents a varied body of paintings which include examples from his Marked Man series. The highly textured surfaces of these works feature a large-scale X which fills the length of the canvas. The X is a formalist symbol that suggests deeper, allegorical contexts as well as the power and ever-changing nature of symbols across times and cultures. For Spann, the X is a representation of the human figure with arms and legs outstretched; a politicized posture which hints towards an individual standing at the mercy of police. The Marked Man paintings are exhibited alongside a new body of work that incorporates candid snapshots of Spann’s family: we see images of his young daughter sleeping or looking up at her father; of his wife holding their newborn son; and of flowers and the family pet. These tender photographs present moments of the artist’s home life from which he is curiously absent. These images are set within brightly colored, rock-life forms and epitomize the bedrock of Spann’s newfound experience of the world as a husband and father.
The centerpiece of the exhibition at the Miami River Armory is a large-scale, mixed-media painting — the largest Spann has ever made — which takes the form of an abstract grid embedded with similar images of his family. Alongside these highly personal photographs are collaged images of incidents of police brutality and other kinds of racially-motivated violence. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, who lost their lives to such circumstances feature throughout the monumental work. The images are small, subtle, and in areas are barely discernible, but build a highly nuanced and layered foundation of a social reality which underlies the contemporary experience of living — and particularly of living as a Black man or boy — in the United States. Accompanying this work are two large-scale, steel and concrete sculptures — also firsts in Spann’s practice — that abstract the recognizable form of protest signs. The sculptures have the look of rock formations erupting violently from the ground, each supporting a flat placard. One reads It could have been me and the other Who shall be held accountable?.
In his Achberger Lectures, published under the title Art=Capital, the mid-century German artist Joseph Beuys argued that all economic and political activities should be understood as creative practice; he believed that life was a social sculpture comprised of the diverse, often mundane, activities of everyday living. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is seeded by a similar ethical verve, pointing towards a cycle of art, politics, and personal experience as the inseparable and mutually co-created elements of contemporary existence.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep presents an analysis of the activist potentials of art and the vested politics of living in this current day and age. These bodies of work mine the histories of art, activism, and the discourses of social practice to reflect upon their inextricable relationships. Spann’s sculptures juxtapose these conditions by looking towards the protest sign as a perennial tool of unrest, uprising, and reform. And his transformation and inclusion of images of tragedy and of family life serve as uneasy and painful reminders of lives cut short; they are memorials to sons and fathers, daughters and mothers taken from their families. The exhibition is a pointed exercise which tests the subjectivities around activism and the violence endemic to political change. It is often those fighting most desperately for their rights, and whose lives are most negatively impacted by the status quo, who are subject to the wanton brutality of the state and its dominant powers. Spann reflects on this reality, places himself within it, and asks who will pay for its inhuman consequences.