Herbert Singleton leans back against the brick wall of our gallery's patio in the French Quarter, puffing on a Kool. Last night, on the corner of his block, a friend was shot in the back and killed. Singleton heard the shots while completing the Crucifixion Coffee Table, which he has just now brought over by bicycle, taking the ferry from Algiers Landing. "It took forty-five minutes for the ambulance service to respond—the brother was long dead," he says. "Looked like the stupid fool turned to run. He should have backed away—took the 9 mm's in his chest or stomach. The back is bad," he observes learnedly, "the heart's closer . . . and the spine . . . even a .25-caliber could kill you there." Singleton pulls up his T-shirt. He had shown me the two scarred black holes in his stomach before—blacker even than Singleton's bituminous skin. "One is a .38," he reminds me, "and the other a .45"—each from separate confrontations. He doesn't bother to remind me that the second bullet cost him his lower intestinal tract or that his criminal retributions cost him two stretches in Angola Penitentiary—almost fourteen years.
At this moment Singleton is out on bond awaiting a trial date at Orleans Parish Criminal Courts. He's charged with assaulting his former landlord, striking him in the head with the butt of a shotgun. We're concerned that the feds might take an interest; strict adherence to the guidelines involving a felon in possession of a firearm could put Singleton away for ten years. Singleton says, "I could do that time standing on my head."
I asked him why he attacked the landlord: "That nigger was trying to confuse me," was his reply. I already knew that. It seems that everything Singleton does, whether an act of violence or a work for our gallery, is associated with the theme of confusion—its exposure and its avoidance.
Confusion is a technical term from New Orleans voodoo lexicon. Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street, for example, offers several brands of "Confusion Powder," all with simple directions: "Dust a letter with this powder and send to enemy. If possible blow some on their garments. Causes confusion and mixed-up thinking.'' For Singleton, however, confusion carries a more medieval, apocalyptic weight: to deceive, to wreck, to curse and cast into perdition; to bring civil and cosmic tumult; to overthrow ethical conventions and moral absolutes; to disorder the primal laws of survival.
Singleton knows the consequences of allowing himself to be confused. He has several knife scars splayed like the Pleiades across his back and lower jaw—his attacker hid a knife under a bandanna. He also knows what it means to be caught up in the confusion of others.
In 1984, a squad from the New Orleans Police Department burst into a house in Old Algiers looking for drugs where there never had been any. They killed three occupants, including Singleton's sister, who was taking a bath. The police then picked up Singleton and questioned him; they put a paper bag over his head and beat him into unconsciousness. The ACLU sued on Singleton's behalf for violation of civil rights. He eventually got $47,500 from the city.
Singleton sees the destructive effects of confusion all around him: the Deacon of the nearby church preying on his female parishioners; the ten-year-old boy selling crack; the funeral director trying to seduce the grieving widow at the funeral; the AIDS-riddled mother carrying her infected child in her arms while offering herself to a passerby; the teenager killed by another teenager for his Buffalo Bills warm-up jacket or his gold plated medallion of Malcolm. Drunks, pimps, hustlers, gangsters, transvestites, all spreading confusion everywhere. These malignant creatures are the subjects of Singleton's most provocative painted wood relief carvings and sculptures—he calls these his "struggle pieces." Each is an entry in a catalog that inventories the self-destruction of the African American community.
The other principal subject matter Singleton carves comes from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha. Although the sources of imagery are different for both, the biblical scenes, like the "struggle pieces," take up the theme of confusion. Both subject matter—the secular and the sacred—relate to each other in an anagogic or metaphoric way along the lines of St. Augustine's axiom that the Old Testament is revealed in the New, and the New concealed in the Old.
The Bible, Singleton argues, is a repository of stories of the
Devil confusing people, making them confuse each other But the Bible teaches you how to get out of the confusion. Eve was confused by the Devil and she confused Adam. But Adam figured it out—it took 932 years, but he did. David and Samson were confused—they got out The Apostles were confused too. Some of them got out. Even Jesus on the cross was confused, but only for a minute. That's why the Bible scenes help and are in the middle of my bag of tricks of my trade forgetting out of confusion.
The crucifixion scene on the coffee table, as always with Singleton, is at once boldly but darkly colored. It is charged with the emotion, heightened by the turmoil of the lightning-filled clouds that stretch across the sky. In one of the rare moments when Singleton has elucidated upon a technical matter, he explains that whenever he dapples anything, it "is a sign of confusion." The stormy dappled sky above Singleton's Golgotha, then, reflects the confusion below.
The group on the left, clustered around Pontius Pilate, is unprecedented in traditional crucifixion iconography. Even though the attendant witnesses the bleeding Christ, he continues to proffer the bowl and towel, thereby becoming the perfect reflection of Pilate's vacillation and confusion. The Procurator stares intently and uncomprehendingly at Christ and proceeds to wash his hands—the quintessential act of indecision and manifest confusion. Although Matthew says that Pilate's wife sent a messenger to relay her dream, Singleton has Pilate's wife herself whisper in his ear: do not do anything "to that innocent man" (27:19), thereby making it abundantly clear that even though the truth is before him, Pilate prefers moral confusion.
Below the body of Christ is the seamless white tunic for which the two garrulous soldiers are throwing lots. While these figures are commonplace in crucifixion scenes, in the context of Singleton's work they, more than anything else, evoke the "struggle pieces." Singleton has even shown the burden that crack cocaine has become on the African American community by anachronistically depicting plantation workers stooped under bales of cotton that resemble enormous blocks of cocaine. The two soldiers could be gangsters in the midst of a drug deal, one dropping crack into the other's outstretched hand, and the seamless tunic might be nothing more than a Buffalo Bills warm-up jacket.
In contrast to the other animated figures, the group of figures on the right seems immobilized. The grieving St. Mary is conventionally depicted in a swoon of perplexity, but Singleton shows her grieving, pierced to the heart, completely absorbed and contemplative, her eyes closed like her son's. Her purpose unobscured by personal tragedy, she has robed herself in blue as the Queen of Heaven that she shall become. St. John stares straight ahead, like Pilate, but with his shepherd's staff in hand, he displays full comprehension of the event unfolding before him, and of his evangelistic mission ahead.
St. Mary and St. John are traditional elements of the crucifixion scene, but St. Peter is Singleton's own contribution. St. Peter does not display the usual crossed keys of ecclesiastical heraldry; instead, as a symbol of his confusion, his denial of Jesus while he stood before the Sanhedrin, Peter bears a disembodied cock's head on his robe. His huddled figure, with its richly expressive contour of deep despair, demonstrates Singleton's brilliant, Blake-like command of the direct symbolism of fine. As pitiful and wretched as this figure is, Singleton has invested him with the solidity of the rock Jesus had chosen him to be. Out of remorse and repentance comes great strength, and even St. John seems already to be leaning upon him.
Singleton violates decorum without knowing there is decorum to violate. Just as he arranges the neighborhood street creatures in his "struggle pieces," Singleton composes the biblical characters at the foot of the cross for his own thematic purposes: each of the figures, in their brilliantly conceived spaces, is richer for its recontextualization.
"When the river was low, I would find a plank of wood to carve. I would look at it and wonder if someone's house and life fell apart." His moral sensibilities are provoked by the corrosive, ritualized savagery and cruelty of inner-city life that swirls all around and engulfs him. There is no Vasari in which we can read of a life so filled with anxiety and violence as Singleton's.
Singleton condemns the world within which he is inextricably bound and puts into this condemnation all his virile strength of mind and luminous expressiveness. Each of his complex and polysemous compositions is a descent into the self, an effort to acknowledge and expiate his own complicity in the suicidal violence that surrounds him—he is so entirely self-critical and self-aware that he sits at the center of the vortex. Some years ago Singleton carved a piece, much exhibited, called Catch Me If You Can. It depicted a black man dancing, Zarathustra-like, just out of reach of robed Klansmen carrying a noose. As if he was disquieted by an imbalance, Singleton immediately carved a piece called Hanging Tree, which showed a black man in a business suit hanging a shabbily dressed black man.
Singleton's self-reflecting mirror of art is a window that allows us to see into the mind and heart of an artist's transcendent and unresolved struggle to overcome the disintegrative demons of confusion within himself. We can share with him his cold comfort at surviving from minute to minute, from carving to carving. Singleton's meditative remarks about his twelve-hour detention and beating at police headquarters provide his living epitaph: "Tied me in a chair. Hit me with a book. Put a gun to my head. Put a bag over my head. I didn't smother. I'm still here."
The quotations in this article are derived from conversations that took place in November 1995.