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Fully Cocked: Provocateur M. Lamar Reclaims African-American Male Sexuality in New Show. 

Wednesday, Feb 4 2015
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Standing before a 9-foot-tall contraption he calls "The Penis Guillotine," artist M. Lamar raises its blade with a cord, pauses it in the air for dramatic effect, then releases the metal with a sudden exclamation. The sound of steel crashing into wood (thwatt!) echoes around the San Francisco gallery that's exhibiting Lamar's artwork, and he lets out the kind of Oscar Wilde-like comment for which he is known: "I like playing with that."

An African-American intellectual, composer, and artistic provocateur who analyzes sex and race in society, Lamar wears spiky leather jackets and gloves, heavy eye shadow and lipstick, and hair that is straight and shoulder-length. Lamar looks, sounds, and acts like few other people in the art world, exemplified by his video Badass Nigga, the Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero Remix. One of Lamar's "fun songs," it opens with Lamar sitting and reading a trio of heavyweight books — The Cornel West Reader, which compiles the writings of the Princeton professor; Beloved, by novelist Toni Morrison; and The Phenomenology of Spirit, the German philosopher Hegel's magnum opus — before Lamar gets up and puts two naked white men into a pillory that clamps their heads and hands. In stylish, smoke-filled black and white footage that is slowed down and sped up in key scenes, Lamar sings in a beautiful falsetto (a la Sylvester) as he forces the men to read his tomes and begins to whip them in the face. "I'm a badass nigga with a badass attitude," Lamar croons, accompanied by piano and dissonant instruments in a song that is catchy, sprawling, and almost unclassifiable. "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you."

Badass Nigga, the Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero Remix is one of the videos that screens in "Negrogothic," a new exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute's Walter and McBean Galleries that's a homecoming for Lamar, who got his bachelor's degree at the school about a decade ago before moving to the East Coast to attend Yale's School of Art sculpture program. Lamar won't say what year he graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute. He won't give his exact age. He won't let a visitor take his photo. Lamar dislikes being labeled by others, and he rejects the term "gay" as a personal descriptor. "I don't describe myself as a gay, black man — I describe myself as 'a practicing homosexual.' 'Homosexual' is about the act. 'Gay' is a cultural thing. I'm much more interested in the act than the culture," he says.

A running motif of "Negrogothic" is the whip and an examination of celebrated photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose portfolio included many images of naked black men who were bent over or shown in bondage or posing with their phalluses. Mapplethorpe, Lamar says, stereotyped and misunderstood African-American men — even as Mapplethorpe was heralded as a ground-breaking image-maker. Generations of white society have, consciously and unconsciously, sexualized and objectified the black penis, says Lamar, whose art spotlights that historic fixation by reversing the dominant roles. In stills like Mapplethorpe's Whip VII The Whip Crackers, Lamar wears a dark full-length robe as he inserts a whip into the rectums of white men. Lamar is the overseer. Lamar dictates what goes where with participants who volunteer their bodies to him. There's no coercion in Lamar's artwork, even as he plays with positions of power. Genres of pornography consumed by whites are devoted to black men, which Lamar relates to lynching. Lamar's art, he says, plays off of these market demands.

"Having this black body and my black penis — on one level, I just keep writing songs about my cock," Lamar says, laughing. Turning serious, he says: "This 'Negrogothic' thing is located for me in the schlocky goth thing and in the real-life experience of black people and the horror of it. It's almost like indulging in the horror ... So much a thing of lynching was cutting off black cocks, and [the lynchers] would pickle those cocks. They'd force the lynched man to eat his penis before he died. They'd cut it off, pickle it, photograph it, sell the photographs.

"Black men are dealing with the sexual ramifications of lynching every day. We're living with legacies of lynching on porn sites. If you go to those sites and type in, 'Big, black cock,' or 'My wife fucked a big black man' — there are millions of titles. When I talk about Ferguson and Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin and the ways in which they were shot dead, the flip side of that is this over-sexualization of the black male body on these porn sites. The 'big black cock' mythology is an invention of the white imagination. It's a fantasy. I like the idea, in a surrealist way, of making the whip also this black penis that white people have invented. It's like, 'Here. This is your invention. It's your thing. Have it back.' I try to understand the black body in the white imagination."

Lamar has traipsed through white environments all his life, including at Yale's School of Art sculpture program, which he left early to focus on music. In Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, a sweeping and moody musical theater piece that he's performing at the San Francisco Art Institute on Friday, Feb. 13, Lamar includes video of Jamie Foxx's 2005 Oscar speech, where Foxx thanks his maternal grandmother for raising him with discipline, including whipping him. In Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, Lamar includes a video of Foxx's "whipping" tribute ("when I would act a fool, she would beat me, she would whoop me, and she could get an Oscar for the way she whipped me, because she was great at it"), which inspired widespread laughs at the Oscars but inspires consternation in Lamar, who says Foxx's remarks show how deeply ingrained African-Americans have internalized the kind of violence and racism that was directed at them during slavery and beyond.

"I think a lot of black men have internalized the gaze of whiteness," Lamar says. "Part of the point of Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche is to get inside this internalization of white supremacy. We usually refer to it as internalized racism. There's this new documentary on Nat King Cole, and they show him putting light make-up on, and that was required in that point in history to be on television [in the 1950s]. And then we had Michael Jackson, who wasn't being told to become lighter but had got the message that he would be more successful and acceptable if he were lighter."

Inevitably, people ask Lamar about his twin, Laverne Cox, the transgender actress and pop-culture figure who made the cover of Time and plays the character of Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black. In 2013, Lamar acted in the series' key flashback episode, portraying the Burset character before she transitioned to a woman. Though Lamar won praise for his performance, he's critical of Orange Is the New Black, which centers on a privileged white character in a prison with many black inmates.

"I've done all sorts of things for money that I'm not proud of, and that would be one of them," says Lamar, who describes himself as "a struggling artist without a trust fund." "I'm very anti-corporate and anti-mainstream media. With any artist, including my sister, I'm always encouraging them to seek other outlets and other milieus for their work. I've always encouraged her to do one-person shows. I don't enjoy Orange Is the New Black. I'm not interested in white people's imaginings of black people.

"Black homosexuality — we really haven't had a big mainstream moment," Lamar adds. "Trans-people are having a moment. And black men and black women are having a moment. But there's a lack of even fictional characters in popular culture. To me, True Blood [the HBO vampire series] is probably the only example of an ongoing series [that had one]. And I guess there's that new show [about a hip-hop company], Empire, which all black people are watching even though it's terrible. I watch it even. Black people are just starved for reflections of themselves."

Talking to Lamar, and taking in "Negrogothic," with its widespread depictions of sex and bondage, is like being inside an experimental Ivy League classroom where the stakes are high, and every student knows it. "Negrogothic" is a tactile, visual, and auditory explosion of important ideas that are usually left to society's margins. Besides "The Penis Guillotine," the exhibit features the pillory that Lamar uses in Badass Nigga, the Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero Remix. Lamar brings the hard edges of the culture into his art, where it can occupy and exalt on center stage exactly like Lamar himself.

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Jonathan Curiel

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