Opulence, Decadence

Lump Gallery, Raleigh  | Through January 3, 2021

Through Opulence, Decadence, the Durham-based curator William Paul Thomas asks, “If you attained a surplus of something that you greatly desired, would you flaunt it, share it, hoard it, hide it, or spoil it?” On view through January 3 at Raleigh’s Lump Gallery, the show highlights nine Black artists who Thomas asked to explore this question outside of conventional “commercial or external pressures.”

These works explore both tangible and intangible forms of wealth and excess, as well as how artists represent, manage, and revel in abundance.

Thomas, an accomplished painter, received his MFA in studio art from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013. In March of this year, Lump director George Jenne invited Thomas to curate a show. The summer that followed, Thomas says, was full of “personal epiphanies” and deep reflections on his own experience of abundance amid national and global turmoil and loss. 

When Jenne asked again if Thomas was interested in curating a show, he said yes.

Thomas says that in curating, he considered the “diversity amongst the artists” in different stages of their creative careers. “Some people have been working for a long time, some people are just now getting started and trying to figure out what they want to do,” he says. “You have Whitney [Stanley], who is an attorney making artwork and is really invested in art. And then you have Jim Lee, who’s done some of everything throughout his life and also has an amazing creative practice. And you have everybody in between that.” 

He’s also interested—“vocationally, culturally, and economically”—in breaking down what the word “diversity” means. 

Opulence, Decadence—which also features work by artists Johannes Barfield, Leticia Clementina, Clarence Heyward, Kwaku Osei, JP Jermaine Powell, Brittany Santiago, and Ariel Williams—challenges viewers to think about the diversity of Black art and Black representation. 

“There are layers,” Thomas says. 

The exhibition takes its name from Kanye West’s and Jay-Z’s 2011 song “Murder to Excellence.” The lyrics—“Black excellence, opulence, decadence”—mark a shift in the song from the lament, “Black-on-black murder,” to a celebration of luxury that includes “sheepskin coats,” “Gucci,” and “Black Cards.” The line has stayed with him for years, Thomas says, and it seemed perfect for an exhibition about “Black people experiencing and managing abundance.”

Ariel Williams, a New Jersey-based painter, was already working on paintings that fit the show’s theme when Thomas invited her to participate. Her four featured oil paintings are provocative. Each is a highly detailed rendering of a cake—in deep lavender, muted goldenrod, baby pink, and lacy white frosting. All of them are riddled with fissures; some are topped with mushrooms and slugs. 

Do they marry opulence and the eventual conclusion of decadence: decay? Or will cakes—symbols of celebration and arguably made for sharing—spoil if they’re hoarded or hidden away?

“Let Us Prey: Verse I, Feast” and “Let Us Prey: Verse II, Famine,” two pieces from Durham-based multidisciplinary artist Jim Lee, are meant to be shown together. They feature eggshells and bones that create modern ossuaries that reflect what he calls “the dark side of abundance.” “Abundance doesn’t just appear,” Lee writes. “It must be accumulated (read as: mined, harvested, or hunted) from existing resources that are always limited by natural laws and systems of interdependence.”

Works appearing to flaunt or share abundance include a series by emerging artist Leticia Clementina, which feature the hands of Ashley Harper—Clementina’s nail technician—with luxuriously decorated nails, cupping saffron roses and dripping honeycomb. 

Clarence Heyward’s The Emperor’s New Clothes reflects on a time in the artist’s life when he flaunted abundance by wearing gold grills he’d saved up to buy as a teenager. There are also three striking mixed-media pieces by the Raleigh artist JP Jermaine Powell; they feature crowned Black women against soft pink and rich turquoise backgrounds.

Thomas says he is inspired by the Studio Museum in Harlem, which is directed by Thelma Golden and devoted to artists of the African diaspora. “It’s international and is a long-standing example of the wide variety of artwork Black artists produce and doesn’t narrow what we [Black artists] do to trauma or any stereotype,” Thomas says. 

Opulence, Decadance is the gallery’s third exhibition since the start of the pandemic, following Lindsay Metivier’s Home Range and Warren Hicks’s Begat

“I’m really grateful for having colleagues, friends, and other artists in this community who entrust me with organizing an exhibition of their work and take time from their regular work to contribute to something like this,” says Thomas. “Every one of them expressed a wonderful gesture of love to me by contributing.” 

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.