Long before Kanye West used it for the album cover of Donda, the black square has been symbolic throughout art history—whether it was Ad Reinhardt’s series of blackabstract paintings in the 1960s, or even in 1915, when Kasimir Malevich created the Black Square.
Adding new perspective to this conversation isAlteronce Gumby, a Bronx-based artist who’s exhibiting a never-before-seen series of artworks with Berlin’sBode ProjectsatMexico City art fair Zona Maco (Feb. 9–13) that reflect on history’s relationship to the color black, and its meaning today through a Black artist’s gaze. “I was thinking about the history of monochromatic painting and black paintings,” Gumby tells Surface. “I was noticing the conversation from artists, from Malevich in the 1920s to non-objective art in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was all impersonal—they all considered the color black to almost be like a void, something without meaning. Ad Reinhardt described it as a vacuum.”
Gumby created each piece in hues of tropical greens, ocean blues, and purples. Each one is covered with black stones in wave-like patterns, which are made of crushed black tourmaline, black obsidian, and labradorite. He also used shungite, a gemstone found in Shunga, a village in Karelia, Russia, and nuummite, which is found in Nuuk, Greenland, and considered to be one of the oldest minerals known to mankind.
Each work riffs on Gumby’s recent trip to Mexico, where he visited Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun, a historic site made of a volcanic rock called hewed tezontle and recognized by the Aztecs as a protective zone known for healing and fertility. The region of Teotihuacán, too, is a key location where obsidian, the black volcanic rock, is harvested. “This black gemstone has its own sense of energy about it,” Gumby says. “It brought me back to the cosmic perspective around the color black.”
Gumby’s artworks often incorporate Mexican black obsidian, which was historically used in decorative jewelry, mirrors, and ritualistic weapons. By bringing a piece of antiquity into the present, Gumby says, each artwork emanates a cosmic energy. “I’m interested in black gemstones and their relationship to the color black. It’s embedding my self-portrait into the painting through these constellations. I use gemstones to recognize myself, to see myself within the work and my relationship with the cosmos.”
But it isn’t about a blanket of color, a void of black. Rather, these highly detailed artworks are about nuance. “I like to call it tonal painting, showing people the world around us,” Gumby says. “Within the paintings, you’ll see values of the same color.”