Charles McGill, Shredded Quilt II, 2016
Reconfigured golf bag parts on panel, 72 x 72 x 6 in.

Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill
Photo: Jenny Gorman

Charles McGill: In the Rough

29 May - 21 November 2021

Charles McGill (New York, 1964-2017) trained as a figurative painter and taught art and golf professionally. These disparate worlds were united, galvanized by a moment of inspiration, after someone commented on the oddity of the artist donning a golf bag at a gallery opening.

The game of golf, with its history of privilege and exclusion, is the artist’s channel for conversation surrounding racial prejudice – literally through his physical deconstruction and assemblage of golf bag parts and figuratively through the symbolic dismantling of the status symbol associated with this insular sport and leisure activity.
The unifying element is the artist’s nuanced treatment of material–a skill he honed as a painter. For McGill, the aesthetic equipoise of layering contrasting and textured materials was critical to the sculpture’s essence. McGill spoke eloquently about the “tug-of-war” between himself and the golf bags’ parts. Torn, stretched, and shredded, McGill laboriously wrestled with the bags’ rigidity and resistance to his intentions. The bare, exposed expressions of material denote a sense of integrity–a characteristic that the game of golf prides itself for, but one that we are prompted to reconsider through the artist’s examination of the sport and the symbols that perpetuate its intolerance.
This discourse intersects with local history. Leonard Reid, a prominent Black Sarasotan, co-designed our first golf course with John Gillespie, a Scottish immigrant and Sarasota’s first Mayor. And in 1959, four courageous Black Sarasotans—Eddie Lewis, Calbert Davis, Ed Rainey, Sr., and Robert Thomas—who were dedicated golfers weary of traveling to Tampa to play, arrived at Bobby Jones and spent the afternoon enjoying a round of golf, thus integrating our City’s municipal course.
We invite you to contemplate McGill’s extraordinary aesthetic achievement, wrought through his struggle in shaping material unyielding to change, and to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of all who work, persevering despite opposition, to make our world a more just and beautiful place.

Charles McGill:
In the Rough

By Joe Lewis, guest curator

Golf. I never understood the game. All I knew was that it killed a lot of Saturday and Sunday TV for large swaths of the year. It seemed silly. But more importantly, even as a young Black child, I knew that the game was not for me, unless, of course, I wanted to carry a heavy bag around in the hot sun and watch from the sidelines. But this reminds me of my first day working for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, where I was hired to coordinate “Jackie Robinson: An American Journey,” a celebration of the 40th anniversary of his historic entry into major league baseball.
As I reviewed the archival materials, memorabilia, knickknacks, toys, baseball cards, uniforms, etc., I came across a photograph of a senior Jackie jumping up in the air with his arm raised, which I immediately read as a Black Power moment. The title of the photo was “Hole-in-One.” That was 1986, pre-Tiger Woods, and I was thirty-three. I had been oblivious to the accouterments which should have told me this was a golf thing. Then I met Charles.

As our nation comes to terms with its lack of cultural diversity, equity, and social justice, McGill's multi-faceted engagement with golf becomes searingly more relevant today.

Charles McGill (1964-2017) was an African American multidisciplinary artist, educator, and avid golfer. His love of golf, notwithstanding its legacies of exclusion which he experienced firsthand as a golf teaching pro, ultimately came to permeate and animate his art practice. He manually broke down vintage golf bags and repurposed their disparate elements into both abstract and figurative forms. His earlier works incorporated collaged mass media images with strong socio-political content and references to historical racial trauma, but as he evolved as an artist, the political dimension morphed into more abstracted references, such as KKK hoods re-invoked by his signature bag covers. As our nation comes to terms with its lack of cultural diversity, equity, and social justice, McGill’s multi-faceted engagement with golf becomes searingly more relevant today.

The 2021 exhibition, Charles McGill: In the Rough is a snapshot of McGill’s layered exploration of golf as creative and intellectual fodder. Traditionally trained in classical painting and drawing, the discovery of his soon-to-be-muse was serendipitous, and resulted from an errant comment made by a woman during a gallery opening in New York’s Chelsea art community. Having never seen someone carrying golf equipment at an art opening, she asked Charles if she could take his picture. It was an ah-ha moment as McGill thought, “If I could somehow incorporate golf, golf equipment … paraphernalia … into my studio practice, and combine it with my desire to work through race and representation, it [would be] a perfect marriage.” He recognized the world of golf as the perfect substrate material to host new narratives about the “well-worn theme” of race and representation and the ongoing struggles of equal access, equity, and societal participation for those who are typically excluded. McGill weaves those issues together with a biting visual lexicon and disturbing satire, calling out the “other world” of white privilege by using its own systemic codes which sustain an exclusive and elitist social and physical infrastructure, such as country clubs, tournaments, etc. But, and perhaps more importantly, in deference to the political frenzy associated with these themes, McGill’s work does not devolve into propaganda, as he never loses sight of art as an aesthetic action.

Another title for the show could be Charles McGill: Cover, Reveal, and Evolve, reflecting his significant production milestones which follow those intransitive verbs’ behavior.

Cover

McGill’s initial foray into golf territory was a formal, additive process, addressing the game’s cultural issues and implements by “covering” them with antithetical things instead of, as he does later, disrupting their resilient physicality. He lampooned the glistening symbols of white prerogative by creating a Black golf ball, dreadlock-covered wooden drivers, and the Lynch Bag, his first collaged golf bag. It is physically usurped by multiple lynching images, illuminating one of the most incomprehensible interventions within the history of American racial injustice, and thus transmogrifying the object’s bourgeois leisure trope with the unambiguous evidence of “civilization” gone awry.

Charles McGill, Lynch Bag, 2007, Golf bag collage, 40 x 17 x 21 in., Collection of Robert Rubin, New York
Detail of Lynch Bag
2007
Golf bag collage
40 x 17 x 21 in.

Collection of Robert Rubin, New York

Charles McGill, Lynch Bag, 2007, Golf bag collage, 40 x 17 x 21 in., Collection of Robert Rubin, New York
Lynch Bag
2007
Golf bag collage
40 x 17 x 21 in.

Collection of Robert Rubin, New York

Another product of his early oeuvre is the multi-year performance piece Playing Through (2001-2007) and his creation of a mythological alter-ego, Arthur Negro, a Black Power advocate and founder of the Former Black Militant Golf and Country Club and Club Negro. An irony-laced social club for post-militant radical Black activists, its conceptual origin and purpose was well- documented by McGill in his now lost text, “The Complete Brief History of Club Negro:” “Club Negro is a place where Black Americans find themselves politically listless and ineffective. It is where the luxury and comfort are the goals we seek to obtain…”

During the performance, McGill, dressed head-to-toe in argyle with an accompanying caddie/bodyguard, armed with a complete set of clubs and automatic weapons, brings the game into Harlem’s busy weekend streets. This was also performed in Hanoi, Vietnam. Teeing off watermelons and using 125th street, vacant lots, and open-air markets as fairways and greens, he teaches passersby putting techniques in front of Sylvia’s, the famous soul food restaurant. While occasionally stepping out of character and reciting revolutionary quotes from Malcolm X through a bullhorn, his performance reshapes the game’s stereotypical racial implications. Taking the game onto the sidewalks of the Black community, he slices a savage tear into the fabric of the game’s fundamental agency and privilege, a tear wide enough to drive through a new Black cultural manifest destiny with which to instigate the erasure of the psychological malaise perpetrated by the so-called dominant class on the diverse Black population. As McGill, AKA Arthur Negro, would say, “I’m on the front line, playing on the back nine.”
Charles McGill, Watermelon Patch, Harlem (“Playing Through” series), 2001,Color photograph, 39.5 x 31.5 in., Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill
Watermelon Patch, Harlem
(“Playing Through” series)
2001
Color photograph
39.5 x 31.5 in.

Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill

Charles McGill, FBMGCC Banner, (“Playing Through” series), 2007, Nylon banner, 74 x 74 in., Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill
FBMGCC Banner
(“Playing Through” series)
2007
Nylon banner
74 x 74 in.

Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill

Reveal

McGill lived in a perpetually creative mode. As he moved through the day, nothing escaped his attention — every interaction with a person, place, or thing added to his imagination’s visual vocabulary. However, one event stands out and radically informs the next phase of his affair with the golf galaxy. One day, while at work in a golf shop, he set up a cluster of completed and prepared bags – filled with clubs and then hooded, leaning them against the wall, and thought, “Am I the only one that thinks these bags resemble hooded KKK marauders?” Until this point, his interaction with the bag was as a canvas, something to conquer and resist by flooding it with contrary visual evocation, while not addressing its underlying structure, form, or function. At this moment, McGill’s discovery bestows human expression upon the bag, releasing its structural and grotesque racial animations and calling out the rawness of its white exclusivity literally head-on. These figures have a symbiotic historical relationship, reminiscent of Phillip Guston’s 1930s Klan painting series. The bags remind us that nativist ideologies, racial injustice, and inhumanity are still ongoing themes in American culture.
Charles McGill, Patriot, 2012, Reconfigured golf bags, 48 x 48 x 15 in., Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill
Patriot
2012
Reconfigured golf bags
48 x 48 x 15 in.

Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill

Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969, Oil on canvas,54 x 79 in.
Philip Guston
Riding Around
1969
Oil on canvas
54 x 79 in.

© The Estate of Philip Guston/Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

The representational impulse is a foundational attribute of McGill’s traditional training. His knowledge of the African Diasporas history and literature is evident and illustrated by other works in the exhibition. Heart of Darkness is an homage, not so much to Joseph Conrad, but Chinua Achebe’s piercing commentary about colonial oppression and vicious exploitation. Skull, a composition of what resembles yokes or collars from golf bags, could easily attach its lineage to the abandoned welded metal fragments of Mel Edwards’s “Lynch Fragments.” Edwards’s focus on the past paves the way for McGill’s underlying social critique of today. McGill uses the transitional object of the humble and benign golf bag as the connective tissue between the world of discrimination and the Other.

Charles McGill, Heart of Darkness, 2015, Reconfigured golf bag parts and hardware, 18 x 24 x 22 in., Collection of Robert Rubin, New York
Heart of Darkness
2015
Reconfigured golf bag parts and hardware
18 x 24 x 22 in.

Collection of Robert Rubin, New York

Charles McGill, Skull, 2014, Reconfigured golf bag parts, 22 x 16 x 10 in., Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill
Skull
2014
Reconfigured golf bag parts
22 x 16 x 10 in.

Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill

Melvin Edwards, Amandla, 1981, Welded steel, 23 1/4 x 7 5/8 x 10 1/2in
Melvin Edwards
Amandla
1981
Welded steel
23 1/4 x 7 5/8 x 10 1/2in

Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery

Evolve

For over a decade, McGill struggled with the bags’ intellectual and physical coding that arose with his repurposing of golf paraphernalia into art. From the beginning, his main objective was to create something aesthetically fascinating, and secondarily, to offer a poignant repartee.
The evolution of his relationship with the subject matter and material led him to contemplate new forms and ways of broadening his message. Disassembling a golf bag is complicated. Its construction of rigid plastic, rivets, heavy nylon stitching, brass, and steel, etc., is next to impossible to dismantle. It reflects the impenetrable psychology of the social structures it represents and their inherent resistance to change.
Charles McGill, Tower One, 2012, Reconfigured golf bags, 24 x 24 in., Collection of Robert Rubin, New York
Tower One
2012
Reconfigured golf bags
24 x 24 in.

Collection of Robert Rubin, New York

Charles McGill, Hyde, 2012, Reconfigured golf bags, 24 x 24 in., Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill
Hyde
2012
Reconfigured golf bags
24 x 24 in.

Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill

Charles McGill, Night and Day, 2012, Reconfigured golf bags, 24 x 24 in., Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill
Night and Day
2012
Reconfigured golf bags
24 x 24 in.

Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill

It makes perfect sense that McGill would push the limits of figurative construction as far as the eye can see. Searching for more buried meanings, he strips the equipment down to its unadorned elements in a sort of autopsy, separating out all its parts, which then clears the way for new anecdotes. McGill, firmly in control of their inscrutable purpose and power, renders the pieces barely distinguishable, removed from their former life.
The change in a focus to complete abstraction allows the viewer greater access to a more complicated theoretical universe grounded in painting and formal visual relationships, and not in politics. The intense energy of this movement towards abstraction, and self-evolution, expands McGill’s previous footprint, pushing its didactic nature aside. In its place, he creates encyclopedic work, a whole new world keyed to his vision. His deeply cognitive and rich social references shoulder the bag of the tormented past of his chosen material and its iconography, while primarily focusing on his aesthetic desires.

Now relieved of the obligation of illuminating the one-point cultural perspective of race and representation, whether tongue-in-cheek, head-on, or by hyperbole, he chooses such universal forms as the circle and square, to frame more layered conversations. These works inspire surprise, curiosity, and a new set of questions. McGill calls it “painting-informed assemblage;” he goes back to his roots. Sculptural pieces such as Shredded Quilt and Summertime focus on applying the leather, plastic, and fabric materials in the same way that he layers paint on a canvas to create form and texture.

Charles McGill, Shredded Quilt II, 2016, Reconfigured golf bag parts on panel, 72 x 72 x 6 in., Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill
Shredded Quilt II
2016
Reconfigured golf bag parts on panel
72 x 72 x 6 in.

Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill

Charles McGill, Summertime, 2015, Reconfigured golf bag parts on panel, 72 x 7 in., Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill
Summertime
2015
Reconfigured golf bag parts on panel
72 x 72 in.

Courtesy of the Estate of Charles McGill

For example, in many ways, one can literally read Shredded Quilt as a violent ripping of golf’s socio-political tropes into shreds and its subsequent Woke comeuppance. And then the real-world brutality of tattered fragments casts torso-like shadows, gently swaying in the breeze created by gawking viewers. It could refer to the rural legend of African American quilts containing secret maps of plantations and the countryside for runaway slaves’ navigation towards freedom. Regardless, the tangled environment also reads like a demiurge trying to create order out of chaos, a poetic recitation extolling the virtues of proportion and harmony, heightening the awareness of the boundaries between life and art. We could also have a lively discussion about Summertime‘s bullseye motif and how contemporary Black art’s social gestalt would assume it represents the police targeting and killing of young Black men, which it does not. It just so happens that it was made at a point in time clouded by the fury of such socio-political tragedies. McGill was consistently clear about developing his ideas, formal considerations first, and taking full advantage of unexpected adjacencies, abstractions, rhythms, and memes.

Not always a comfortable waystation, McGill’s works command a broad range of critical positions with extraordinary variety. His unmistakable production quality, vision, and creative practice are informed by a sharp aesthetic and the ability to use humor and gravitas at will. He refused to let the politics overshadow craft, capturing instead the dynamic equilibrium of both, while resisting their binary oppositions. He understood disruption, frenzy, and terror, and used these extremes without undermining our collective humanity.

Joe Lewis is a nationally known non-media-specific artist, professor of art at the University of California, and president of the Noah Purifoy Foundation. He exhibits frequently, most recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Oaxaca, Mexico; Museum of Modern Art, and James Fuentes Gallery, New York. His work is in notable collections, including The Los Angeles County Museum CA, Studio Museum in Harlem, Deutsche Bank, and Museum of Modern Art, NY. Lewis has written for Art in America, The LA Weekly, Artforum, and his essays regarding the confluence of art, technology, and society appear in anthologies and peer-reviewed journals

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