Memory lives in our bodies as well as our minds—something to consider when you look at McArthur Binion’s solo show “Ghost: Rhythms” at Kavi Gupta. The paintings were made in New York in the 1970s, when the artist was in his 30s, but what’s on view here feels like the work of a much older man.
Born in 1946 in Mississippi, Binion spent his earliest years on his family’s farm, where he started picking cotton at the age of four. He became the first African-American person to earn an MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art; after graduate school he headed to New York City, where he designed sets for the feminist playwright Ntozake Shange and collaborated with the artist David Hammons. Binion’s own work was enough in tune with the times that reigning minimalists Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre included several of his paintings in a group show they curated for Artists Space.
But his minimalist ties have always been loose, his approach to his medium idiosyncratic. He’s been on the painting faculty at Columbia College for years, but he’s never used a brush. Instead, he’ll repeatedly press the tip of an oil stick or crayon onto the surface of the painting—a labor-intensive process he’s likened to picking cotton.
When viewed from across the room, many of his paintings appear placid and nearly monochromatic. Draw nearer and you’ll see that’s an illusion. Their cream-toned surfaces are actually teeming with hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny, nodulelike impressions, beneath which are still more fields filled with crayon marks, this time in a range of colors—orange, yellow, blue, green. Binion sometimes makes the top layer so thick you can barely see that there’s a rainbow glowing beneath it.
The paintings in “Ghost: Rhythms” are all pretty ghostly. If you really want to see them, you have to get up close—in some cases, close enough to catch the faint whiffs of crayon that emanate from the surface. It smells like childhood, and for at least a couple seconds, it may take you back there too.
Correction: This article has been updated to remove an inaccuracy about Binion’s artistic technique.