It takes a special artist to be given two solo exhibitions running concurrently at two different spaces in New York City. Add to that the lofty distinction of holding a Venice Golden Lion, in part for profoundly shifting the culture of the contemporary moving image. Credit these accomplishments to the man that they call AJ – better known as Arthur Jafa.

The show at 52 Walker, a creative outpost of the leading commercial gallery David Zwirner, features an array of Jafa's work, some pieces seen previously in other shows and some pieces recently produced. Titled BLACK POWER TOOL AND DIE TRYNIG, the exhibition reveals a panorama of thematic concerns that motivate Jafa such as pop culture, death and industrial weight. Of course, the animating concern is Black life and how it is expressed as a function of Black visuality. Jafa's obsession is with the cultural history of Black peoples, primarily those in the United States. He celebrates these cultural lives but does so through a lens darkly. As the artist has mentioned in interviews, he considers himself an undertaker.

The work that dominates the gallery floor at 52 Walker is what Jafa calls a "picture unit." This is a large monolithic black structure that one can enter and walk through in a corridor of sorts. Lights illuminate a series of images printed in large format and placed from top to bottom on the structure's walls. The images range from the abstract, like an undefined planet orbiting a star, to the disturbingly representational, like the picture of a crime scene with a corpse laid out against a couch with a US flag draped over it.

Arthur Jafa, Work in Progress, 2024, © Arthur Jafa. Courtesy of the artist and 52 Walker, New York.

The picture unit is an immersive installation that is proto-cinematic in part because of the sheer scale of the imagery within it. One must submit oneself to it, and moving through it is an arresting experience that unsettles. There is a general potency that is connected in Jafa's work across objects, moving images, painting, photography and more. This power is condensed and projected in the picture unit.

The show at Gladstone Gallery, by comparison, is minimalist in its conception and execution. Gladstone is the enterprise that represents Jafa in all areas of his visual arts practice. In the gallery's space in the Chelsea district of New York City, they have installed Jafa's film ***** (pronounced "redaction") on an immense screen. The projection quality is immaculate, offering a pure cinematic spectacle.

In the middle of the darkened gallery there is a large black ramp, and viewers can choose to sit on it while watching the film, walk around it, or walk up it. The ramp makes for an odd structure that intervenes in the space. It is not clear if it is an immovable element in the gallery architecture or an artistic addition to the show, which is actually all about upwards movement, from street to staircase, from foyer to stairwell, and from stairwell to first floor room.

Installation view, Arthur Jafa: *****, Gladstone Gallery, New York, 2024.

Jafa's single-channel film is a readymade appropriation of the climactic and uber-violent scene in Martin Scorsese's iconic film Taxi Driver, in which the antihero Travis Bickle (incarnated in a legendary performance by Robert De Niro) enacts bloody vengeance in a brothel where an underage prostitute (played by a young Jodie Foster) is working. Bickle is either redeeming or saving her, in his warped mind, but it is just as likely that he is simply fulfilling his own twisted fantasy.

Jafa stiches together the sequence from various starting points, opting to strip away elements of sound with the repetitions. He also inserts actors and music in order to "supplement" the cinematic elements he felt were missing and to draw out notions of Black presence and Black culture that were erased in the original film for various reasons, but which exist in the original screenplay.

Arthur Jafa, *****, film still, 2024, video (color, sound). Courtesy of the artist.

In one iteration of this fascinating scene study an actor playing the pimp Sport (originally performed by Harvey Keitel) stands in a doorway and smokes a cigarette while singing along to the song As by Stevie Wonder. When the second verse starts, and when Wonder alters the pitch of his voice to evoke a harsh and almost demonic sound, the lyrics reference love and hate, and making the world a better place, reclaiming existence from a hellish fate. At that moment Travis enters the scene and it continues with his shooting rampage – but this time over the Stevie Wonder track rather than the piercing original score by Bernard Herrmann.

The effect of this musical shift is uncanny, and through it one begins to get a sense of the intention underlying Jafa's project. He says he chose to insert this music because this is what Black people would have been listening to in the late 1970s. But the music also offers Travis a choice, a chance to "change truth into love" as he advances up the bloody stairs. One prospective option is evoked by the sound of a suicidal gunshot, which Jafa adds to the end of one of the repeated sequences. This fatal cycle does have an exit, but one can only find it with grace.

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