Delmes & Zander in Cologne has long championed those artists defined by stigmatizing catchalls such as ‘art brut’ and ‘outsider art’, doing so with an acute sensitivity to the fact that difference alone should not equate to currency. The drawings of Derrick Alexis Coard, a selection of which are brought together in the solo exhibition, ‘Bearded Black Man’, are well served by this approach. Coard, who died in August of last year at the age of 36, lived with a schizoaffective disorder but, while evident in his drawings, his artistic practice cannot be reduced to this aspect alone. We need only look at the slightly angular rendering of an African-American man in The Bee Saved the Schizophrenic (2015), his soft eyes staring out, his face framed and covered by deep black hair. To his left floats a flower drawn in coloured pastels; above it, a bee. With its title and almost allegorical composition, the drawing could easily be taken as a portrait of the artist, but Coard’s works are not self-portraits. They are portrayals of imaginary men – always full-bearded, always black.
Something that plays no real part in this work, but is striking elsewhere in the show, is the abundance of visual cyphers for sainthood. Anointing Fall on Me (2015) is a half-length portrait of a man in profile, his eyes closed. The figure’s head is surrounded by a bright yellow halo, a commonplace motif in painted icons. The Epiphany (2014) similarly activates a religious visual idiom, portraying a naked man, far more muscular this time, as an angel. The figure’s washed-out body contrasts starkly with both his blue and yellow halo and the dynamic lines emphasizing his strong upper arms – à la Superman. In this fascinating mash-up of homoerotic black icon and the stylistic means of comic-book illustration, the figure’s soft, dreamy eyes remain at odds with his body, which is steeped in the conventions of ‘manliness’.
It is conspicuous that the eyes of Coard’s figures invariably convey shyness or vulnerability and are often closed or hidden behind heavy sunglasses. The exhibition includes three portraits with eyewear, the most appealing being Lyricist’s Eyes Unrevealed (2015): the head, rendered in marker pen and half-profile, is formed from the saturated black of sunglasses, beard and hair, with each element seamlessly converging on the one visible ear. While shades are customarily seen as a demarcation of coolness, Coard’s focus is on the unrevealed eyes; the concealing of vulnerability behind a hard, outer shell.
The dominance of the colour black in these works can certainly be read as an affirmation and assertion of blackness, but Coard’s statement of ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’ is far more fragile than that which was defiantly sung by James Brown in 1968. Here, impenetrable black hair, especially beard hair, combined with deflecting sunglasses, appears to be a form of protection; an armoured suit that encloses something more sensitive.
But there is also a subtly coded homoerotic celebration at work in Coard’s depictions of maleness – most explicitly in Pete’s Underwear Body (2015). At the centre of this bashful triple-portrait is a full-length depiction of a man, in underwear, with hair all over his body. To his left and right are cropped details from the portrait: half of his face and an enlarged section of his hirsute body. While Pete’s posture is timid and his gaze neutral, the two enlarged sections, and that which depicts his near-naked body, candidly create a charged sexual tension that is present only in highly oblique ways in the exhibition’s other works. Over and again, it is this directness, this simplicity of means, that proves to be the strength of Coard’s project.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Derrick Alexis Coard, ‘Bearded Black Men’ was on view at Delmes + Zander, Cologne, from 7 June until 21 July 2018.
Main image: Derrick Alexis Coard, Handsome Nerd, 2015, marker and graphite on paper, 61 x 48 cm. Courtesy: Delmes & Zander, Cologne, and White Columns, New York
First published in Issue 198