Edgar Arceneaux is tall, so he has to hunch down when he enters the asymmetrical A-frame log cabin that houses his installation Library of Black Lies, currently on view at Beta Main in downtown Los Angeles.
Standing inside the wonky wooden structure, the artist explains how the library’s small entryway, tall ceilings, mirrored walls and labyrinthian shelving are intended to disorient visitors. “There are places where you might see your reflection in a mirror and mistake yourself for somebody else,” he points out. “Sometimes you’ll see your legs and no head, or you’ll catch the glimpse of just an upper body, or you’ll walk into a wall because it looks like another room.”
Arceneaux says that these discombobulating physical characteristics, which he designed in collaboration with L.A. architect John K. Chan, can be viewed as a metaphor for the distorted ways in which history has been recorded and taught. “Americans like their history to be progressive and triumphant,” he explains. “Which is why people are having such a hard time with this Trump moment. This isn’t the arc we thought we were following, you know?”
The scrolls and bound books that line the shelves of Arceneaux’s library critique that progressive, triumphant version of the American story, with a particular focus on the problems surrounding neatly packaged versions of African-American history.
“There is an aspect in which I am critiquing the way in which African-American history is shared among African-American people,” he says. “The narrative that we share with ourselves that knowledge is power and that knowledge can transform your position is, to some degree, called into question by the recognition that there are a number of forces out there that are meant to prevent that from being true.”
On some of the shelves inside the library, books about Bill Cosby make an obvious point about how perceptions change over time. Growing up in South-Central L.A. as part of a working-class black family, Arceneaux felt connected to the version of black success depicted on The Cosby Show. “My family didn’t exactly look like that, but we weren’t that different either,” he recalls. Arceneaux grew up seeing a progressive continuation “from slavery to Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. to Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey.” Of course, today Cosby’s name on a book spine brings to mind rape allegations, a reminder that reality does not always match up to the historical narratives societies imagine for themselves.
Arceneaux made the scrolls and some of the books in the library by hand at his studio in Pasadena. Created out of old newspapers that have been painted in a dark, blackish green, they are more subtle in their cultural critique. Once a vehicle for the news of the day, the newspapers now are illegible. Other books are entombed in crystallized sugar, rendering them unreadable as well.
Some books in the library are more personal to Arceneaux and have not been altered in any way. There is a set of encyclopedias that were part of his childhood home library. They depict the history of Christianity, beginning with an image of Jesus and ending with a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. “Actually, my grandfather bought those for my mother when she was a little girl,” he says. “I took them from my parents’ house, so my mother actually wants some of them back.” He laughs thinking about what her reaction would be if he tried to return them covered in sugar crystals.
Like any other library, Arceneaux’s Library of Black Lies is free and open to the public. The massive glowing structure can be seen from the street, and anyone who wants to can stop in and explore the installation when the museum is open. “Libraries are still probably some of the most important civic institutions that the country has to offer,” Arceneaux says. “This is me using the structure of the library to have a number of interlocking conversations.”
Those conversations — about truth, race and American history — are incredibly timely. Which is why, when Arceneaux reached out to Beta Main director Allison Agsten late last year about showing the piece, she jumped at the opportunity. The museum was scheduled to undergo construction during the months of February and March, but Agsten altered the construction plans to accommodate Arceneaux’s work during Black History Month.
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“I’ve begun increasingly to think of museum making as an act of resistance. In a way, showing this piece right now became a part of that,” Agsten says. “Realistically, we’re not a massive institution with a lot of infrastructure or the kind of bureaucracy that would make it enormously challenging to change up our plans, so we have to use that to our advantage. Like anything else, you just do it.”
Arceneaux is thrilled to be showing Library of Black Lies in his hometown, where he can switch out books as he chooses or stop by on a random weekday to spend time with the piece. “Part of the reason I wanted to show this work at Beta Main is that I like the idea that people can engage with art just 10 steps away from the street,” he says. “You don’t have to pay a fee. You can stop in casually on your lunch break or on your way home from school. You can just stick your head in and look at it and then walk out.”
Arceneaux says he made the library for “people’s minds and for their hearts.” It is the kind of safe, warm space that will feel both familiar and disorienting to visitors. And, thanks to Agsten’s flexible approach to museum curating, it is a timely addition to this city block, appearing just when many people’s minds and hearts are hungry for art that questions and resists.
Edgar Arceneaux’s Library of Black Lies runs through March 26 at the Beta Main, 114 W. Fourth St., downtown; Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; free. themainmuseum.org/programs/library-of-black-lies.