Upon entering Baxter St. at the Camera Club of New York to witness Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.’s “a simple song,” I am drawn, moth-like, to the backmost wall of the gallery. The photo-sculpture Sssummmmmwhhhhhhhhhhere (2018) features a large light box protected/intercepted/interceded by six beams made of aluminum and hand-woven willow — a labor-intensive material that must first be soaked for one week. Bold and sparse, the beams build toward and guard the light box, which illuminates a photograph of a couch being lifted and the legs of the lifter at work. The mismatched feet of the couch mirror the mismatched socks of the lifter. A wrinkled receipt worms nowhere. I can almost imagine the lifter doing this alone, a feat of impossible and allegorical strength. The exhibition, which is Brown Jr.’s first solo show, borrows its title from Billy Preston’s 1971 album I Wrote a Simple Song, and I see Preston’s song “John Henry” in the labor of the lifter, unafraid and determined, tossing the couch into the atmosphere. Brown Jr’s photographs allow this kind of fiction-building in their quietude and openness, a kind of folklore to be told at the fire, in the living room. “Can’t you see the possibilities?” Preston sings, as does the photographer.
Brown Jr’s offering of Black secrecy and intimacy presents a vulnerability that is not for the viewer but alternatively works in service of the full autonomy of those photographed. He instructs the viewer to do the work: instead of “who are we looking at?” we are to ask “how are we looking?” Only then we are offered the kind of proximity that lets us gather humbly in meditation in Just beyond (2018), or to giggle with the mischievous and knowing smirk of On ice (2018), as if Anansi himself was asked for his portrait. We sit outside the prayer and the laughter, but we are allowed a brief glimpse inside if we look with care.
Elliott Jerome Brown Jr’s song is not without complexity or rigor — in fact, it depends on it — yet it cuts to the necessary, the essential gesture. Gets deep in the groove and thumbs it quietly, hums a low hymn of ease.