If, in the winter of 2017, you had walked along Gates Avenue—which stretches from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, to Fresh Pond, Queens—you would have found its midpoint conspicuously marked by a version of the Confederate flag. The migratory art gallery Housing, then located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, had recently installed Sean-Kierre Lyons’s Drop in Water (2017) in its storefront window. Like most of Lyons’s works, the flag was a piece of Civil War–era paraphernalia with a twist, as if someone, somewhere along the way, had seized the means of production and then freaked it. Premium brand saltines were glued to a wooden backing, slicked with resin, and detailed in white and blue acrylic paint. Displayed as part of a group show that also included works by Parker Bright and Isis Swaby, the flag was intended as a visual pun: the crackers might put crackers on blast, but Lyons didn’t intend for anyone to feel hurt. Drop in Water, however, was a signifier with a life of its own: eventually, someone threw a brick. The window shattered, but the crackers remained intact—that is, until the work was moved into the building’s basement for storage, where it was eaten by rats.
Most vexed historical symbols are destined to meet one of two fates: either they are elevated to the status of totems by those who insist on their endurance, or they are swept into archives and curiosity cabinets, where they are regarded as the cursed vestiges of a shameful past. Excavating malign reminders of the antebellum South, Lyons suffuses collective memory with childlike whimsy. During a recent studio visit, the self-taught artist—who was born in Salinas, California, and raised in Brooklyn—told me that whenever an emblem is sentenced to the annals of history, “there’s life behind it, somewhere else.”
Resurrections are not necessarily endorsements. Lyons’s works that evoke the afterlife of the Confederacy are winking, even crass. The artist’s portraiture, on the other hand, is celebratory. Every drawing included in “In Battle Petals Fall,” their 2020 solo exhibition at Fortnight Institute in the East Village, looks like a party. Facial features are derived from the hyperbolic aesthetics of minstrelsy, but seem a little more real, more intimate—despite the fact that eyes and teeth double as pistils and stamens, crowned with a psychedelic weave of petals. Lyons calls the colored-pencil figures “flower warriors,” and each is derived from a loved one: a friend, a housemate, their dad. Were the renditions not so spot on, it would be tempting to call them avatars. (During our studio visit, Lyons showed me a drawing of a figure made up entirely of clouds, in which I immediately recognized their studio mate, Precious Okoyomon.) Each brandishes accessories like absurdist armor: a vine becomes a jump rope; a white hood, absent its body, is toted like a bag of found treasure.
Before Lyons turned to drawing last year, they tended to work in sculpture. “Mmhhmm,” their 2019 solo show at Larrie on the Lower East Side, featured a new cracker flag, this time with the coiled rattlesnake and DON’T TREAD ON ME inscription from the Gadsden banner, as well as an immersive Astroturf-lined installation populated by plush objects wearing affable expressions. Ladybugs, flowers, and even a pack of Newports wore sewn-on lips curled into vacant smiles, and little humanlike figures dressed in bunny suits bore grins so large they might be mistaken for grimaces. If encountered individually, the items might look like interlopers from the land of misfit toys. But viewed together, and accompanied by the flower warriors, they are clearly transplants from another realm, where even hints of pain are expressed through the coy aesthetics of cuteness, and repose is a battle stance in disguise. “If you come off as a whimsical bitch,” Lyons told me, “people are really surprised when you turn up.”
The sculptures and drawings belong to a single ongoing narrative, detailed in a notebook that describes a world populated by flower warriors who live in harmony with their evolving environment. Alongside ladybugs and humanlike creatures, they harvest sustenance from the earth. Inevitably, there are villains—in this case, wasps named after Confederate generals—but when a flower warrior dies, everyone helps to usher in new life. “These characters were made without our permission,” Lyons said, referring to the imagined traits and habits of Black life that were codified into minstrelsy. Cultivating the thwarted lives sentenced to death in the archive is “a way of honoring them, and giving these entities a way to exist where they can live their lives out, and have more than just shaking their hands and tap dancing. They can defend themselves now, and they have families.” The flags, humanoids, and flower warriors are not the ephemera of a lost history, but the building blocks of an alternate present, where “everything is a Black figure, and everything has consciousness.”