For his solo show at Big Medium, Adrian Armstrong commandeers a corner of the gallery for “Goodies,” a recreation of the corner store near his great-grandmother’s home in a historically Black neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska.
The fully-functioning store offers a small stock of a few necessities (baking soda, dish soap, paper towels), and also drinks and snacks. Some of the candy is distinctly old school: Mickey Mouse Pez dispensers, candy buttons and necklaces, Big Chew Bubblegum.
At the exhibition opening, I bought a bag Gold Mine Bubble Gum nuggets, purely for nostalgia’s sake. I’m really not into gum, but I hadn’t seen the weird sack of yellow nuggets for years. Armstrong autographed my purchase with an inky thumbprint, as he did for other customers that night.
When I asked him where he found all the now-obscure candy, he told me he’s had his mother source much of it at the actual Omaha neighborhood store.
Armstrong relocated to Austin from Omaha seven years ago, and every time he mentions that it is met with surprise, usually from white people.
As he explains in his artist statement, “The main question that I got (when I first moved to Austin), and still get to this day, is, ‘There Are Black People in Nebraska?.’ This took me by surprise because all through my life, I had always been surrounded by mostly Black people. Like most cities, Omaha is segregated by historically oppressing laws which concentrated the Black population mostly to the north side.”
Like in his great-grandmother’s neighborhood, Armstrong surrounds his recreated store with a gallery filled with portraits of Black people.
His portraits feature family members, friends and acquaintances. He also intriguingly portrays himself as a kind of everyman, appearing solo or in multi-figure groups. From outside the gallery, a larger than life-size cut-out portrait of a shyly smiling young man greets visitors from inside Goodies alongside a neon ‘open’ light and a red-and-white business hours sign.
Welcome to Armstrong’s (re-imagined) neighborhood.
Armstrong begins his portraits by drawing with ballpoint pen, then adds layers of paint, colored pencil and collage of fabric, paper, digital images. The process creates captivating textures that reward long and repeated looking.
The portraits brim with energy, affection and expressiveness. In “All in the family” (2022), a foursome stands in close and friendly posture, and Armstrong’s collaged denim to represent jeans worn by the woman fronting the group. In an untitled portrait of two women cuddling on an armchair, one woman’s toe juts off the canvas in a playful move.
Ten artworks are currently on view, and the plan is that before the show closes on Jan. 8, new paintings will replace some, others will stay.
Big Medium curator Coka Treviño, who has worked with Armstrong for several years and who organized the current show, points out that a changing line-up of portraits is meant to evoke the comings and goings of a community meet-up spot.
“As people come and go from cities, and neighborhoods, we imagined how the exhibition could portray different people, some just in passing, some giving the place it’s identity,” says Treviño.
Adds Armstrong: “Just like a store changes and restocks, this show will do the same. The works will be exchanged and added and will further reveal the black community in Omaha.”
“There Are Black People in Nebraska?” continues through Jan. 8, 2023 at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Road, bigmedium.org