Like the gap between the funeral home-like setting and the grittier operations taking place behind the scenes, the gallery space has been divided into this alien autopsy room lit by fluorescent lighting and the one behind a thick black curtain.
In this adjacent room is the installation “Sang James (BOJ)” which includes a podium of the kind used for sermons and speeches, rendered in plexiglass edged in neon yellow to give it an otherworldly glow. A soundtrack in its base plays a gospel song, performed, it turns out, by the artist himself. On the wall, encased in a Plexiglas box, is a painting of a man with the heavy mustache and wide lapel suit of a 70s preacher or singer – a visualization, perhaps of that voice invisible.
The irreverence seemingly contained in this wacky retro painting and those bloodshot cartoon eyes of SpongeBob looks like a psychological strategy, a cover, like a cracked joke or a quick change of subject.
The alien sprawled on a stretcher in “Last One Left” turns out to be a stand-in for Darden’s own brother and Morehouse graduate, David F. Darden III, who was shot in 2018 by a Georgia State Patrol trooper after he endured a long struggle with mental health issues. The subsequent autopsy left Darden only less clear about his brother’s death. The tattoos are replicas of those that David, whom his family called Rico, had. Grieving, it turns out, has been a constant for the 39-year-old entertainer and Georgia State BFA grad who lost his mother, brother, and father in succession.
Aliens and monsters have often been the scapegoats of science fiction, the “Others” who are pursued or persecuted by torch-wielding villagers or trigger-happy lawmen. It is no coincidence that Darden symbolically uses an alien here to refer to the violent end of a loved one, a circumstance all too familiar to black Americans.
But “Rico” is also about a world that denies black victims their humanity in the first place. Spot absurdity as a coping strategy and rage against a surreal situation.
There’s a sadness in the collision of television and cartoon elements in “Rico” with the real-life traumas of death and loss. “Rico” draws from a fertile image bank of childhood iconography from cartoons and movies, mixed with the dark reality of adulthood and lost innocence.
VISUAL ARTS JOURNAL
In summary: mixed with wacky absurdity, this solo exhibition actually evokes the feeling of heartbreak, when the world seems surreal and upside down and you will do anything to change the subject.