It was the saturated, Billiard-table green that was so arresting as to stop the scroll. With figures at the junction of Francis Bacon and ancient Egypt, the images seemed almost like Tarot cards for this exact moment: and if looking at two works was premonition, then to see seven works would be prophecy. Faceless but not featureless, these newest works from Overstreet Ducasse start with R.E.M. and end in the imagined future.
The Jacksonville-based artist is known for loading symbolism into his paintings in a technique that weds the optical trickery of Trompe-l’œil with a Surrealist sensibility. Ducasse then stacks symbols upon words and meanings.
As Ducasse’s dear friend Patrick Evans McMillian observed, “Overstreet Ducasse is a mad artist. But he’s not upset.”
A long-time fixture in the local arts scene, Ducasse stayed prolific in 2020.
He showed in the Art Ventures 30th Anniversary Exhibition at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. He participated in a show at the Jacksonville Transportation Authority Headquarters and was one of the artists commissioned to work on the Color Jax Blue mural. Ducasse is also a regular in the Ritz Theatre and LaVilla Museum’s annual Through Our Eyes exhibit, and he’s shown his work nationally and internationally. He maintains a studio at the CoRK Arts District.
“The mural is a great representation for 2020,’ says Ducasse, reflecting on his participation in the <Color Jax Blue> project. “[But as an artist] I’m asking myself: ‘What do I want to represent me when I look back on this year?’”
The problem, as he ascertained it, was to create something to encompass this very specific time. By working in a focused series, Ducasse can continue building his visual lexicon, which relies on the linguistic associations with the imagery he uses. It’s a semiotic approach to objects and words that renders porous the exchange of meaning. Tethered to music and lyrics, the artist responds to current events by revealing the hysterically dangerous striving of politicians and extremists. Example: a bolt on a door that also signals a bolt-action rifle and all the Second Amendment rhetoric and liability that comes from the open carry crew.
“This is a very special time. A different time. I felt that this is something that we never saw coming—and the crazy thing is: There’s so much happening you could even eliminate the pandemic,” Ducasse says. “Usually, a piece of mine starts with a connection to a song. I started thinking about ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ by R.E.M. The chorus says, ‘sign of the times.’ So, I was thinking about the signs of the times, and what that represented to me was the Black Lives Matter movement. And then I started thinking about sign language.”
Those ideas spawned his newest series, Sign of the Time.
The Time pieces are striking and pared down, recalling an aesthetic turn he began in a previous series titled Pole-Ice. This 2019 work conflated a popsicle, sheriff’s badge, and lace to address the way U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) abuses its power. Isolating the central popsicle form allows the viewer to more closely observe the interplay of ideas and language. Both Pole-Ice and Sign of the Time callback to another, earlier Ducasse series: the Targets. Those works repurposed gun-range targets, rendering explicit the ever-exposed (literally and figuratively) necks, backs, and bodies of Black and Brown citizens to the majority population in America.
But Ducasse takes a long view of events, contextualizing them within the distorted narrative that is the popular history of America. “Now I’ve started this whole Sign of the Times series, and for some reason, I fell in love with the simplicity of it. Instead of adding on [to the initial painting of the series] I said, ‘let me create another one.’”
Though the first painting in the series, Pick A Sign, doesn’t depict the figures that populate the subsequent works, it does point the way. A trio of Afro Picks with hands for handles are positioned against a parchment-colored background, casting short shadows over cursive text in the background. With hands held in the shape of the letters for BLM they nod to the Black Power movement but are updated for the 2020s.
The paintings that followed Pick A Sign draw on that spare composition. But instead of objects, Ducasse places bodies in front of the viewer. Painted black, with scoring rings for target shooting incised on the figures; in lieu of a head, the sign for the letter “L.” Ducasse revisits the BLM motif, but in using a black body against a brilliant green, he also echoes a Bacon-esque palette that reinforces the idea of body-as-meat, of living flesh.
“Initially I had all these ideas about what I wanted to represent, because the [R.E.M.] song itself deals with McCarthyism, the Red Scare, the Blacklist, and stuff like that. So, I had this whole idea of what I wanted in this painting such as the Red Scare would represent China, Russia, and the Electoral College (red state fear); the Blacklist would be all the deaths that occurred during this time [via] police brutality that sparked this revolution.”
The layered meaning games and deliberate choices are a part of what compels local collector Richard Shafer to Ducasse’s works. “The first piece I bought from ‘Street was a painting of a chalkboard cafe menu. I thought it was an odd subject, and then I noticed the beverage menu had Kool-Aid crossed out and tea written in its place alongside the comment ‘Tea is the new Kool-Aid.’ Suddenly I realized this was a political piece, a condemnation of the Tea Party. This was when I started to see how his work was filled with symbolism and meanings that give his work a real depth, engaging viewers’ eyes and minds. Everything was open to interpretation, everything means something. Overstreet is a bit of a genius.”
In a recent article for Gagosian Quarterly curator Taylor Aldridge wrote about the relationships between Black elders and the artists who seek them out: “In the Black American tradition, inheritance is not historically tied to economic wealth, but to memory, culture, rituals, and wisdom—a different kind of prosperity that is engendered out of love and respect.”
If there’s a non-blood lineage that links Black elders with artists, then Ducasse is the brilliant uncle who remains buoyant yet honest. He’s the incorrigible not-quite-elder whose seeming unperturbable manner belies the quickness of his mind, and his willingness to continually push into his own new ideological territory.
New works from Overstreet Ducasse will be on display as part of the solo exhibition Triggered/Catalyst to Activism at The Corner Gallery inside the Jessie Ball duPont Center (40 E. Adams St., Downtown, Jacksonville). An opening reception will be held at 5 p.m. August 14. The show runs through October 29.
This article originally appeared under the headline “Mad But Not Upset: Overstreet Ducasse encodes the signs of our time” in Void Magazine’s July 2021 issue.