On Florida Avenue and 5th Street in Northeast D.C., there’s a poster of Malcolm X wheat-pasted onto a utility box. It’s one of many throughout the city. He smiles broadly, and the text reads “Absurdly Well” in Coca-Cola font.
Absurdly Well is the poster’s creator. The abstract painter and political street artist’s work is currently enjoying a more insulated viewing at Transformer on 14th Street as part of their storefront exhibition “Looking In/Looking Out,” a series of rotating, site-specific installations housed in the gallery front window and on view from the street.
Well’s own installation, “Unrestricted Heritage,” looks at his upbringing and Black heritage more broadly through both abstract painting and street art. Alongside Malcolm X, the installation features Rosa Parks, Fred Hampton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The figurative posters share the same style as the utility box poster: part Shepard Fairey, part Andy Warhol.
His abstract works include “Untitled (Magic Circle),” “Country Rooster” and “Black Rider,” made during a creative spurt when recently in quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19. The artist’s son, who quarantined with him, helped paint the latter two works.
“What else am I gonna have the kid do but paint?” he asks rhetorically.
Both have since recovered. A D.C. native, Well has been practicing abstract art since his days at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where teachers saw his potential.
“They transformed me from ‘Dragon Ball Z’ characters to ‘Hey, why don’t you draw a face with some of your favorite flowers in it and then make it look like a Renoir?’”
Street art came only recently when his abstract works were receiving little attention.
“Unless you’re in the MoMA, nobody cares,” he says. “What you can do is make a street art poster with your art [and] your name on it, and put it everywhere in the city.”
A friend taught him how to wheat paste, so he learned how to do it legally and began using his office printer.
“The artist’s job is to confront people’s perception,” he says. “You can’t do that unless people know who you are.”
It took him a year to find the right approach.
“A good piece of art has three seconds on the street.”
He experienced a bout of homelessness at the time, and observed passersby firsthand.
“You’re probably dropping the kids off. You’re probably walking with your girlfriend, your partner, what have you. You’re not looking to stop.”
Then he found the pop-art approach present in his street art today.
“You see the Coca-Cola font, and it almost reminds you of the taste. It hits a lot of sensations.”
The size, color and “racing stripes” draw viewers in. The celebration of Black leaders in his work comes from his upbringing, though.
“My family always carried the stories and spoke about them in the home.”
Not that that was the norm.
“Today, Blackness is something that is reached for and even asked for by white people. The unrestricted nature of our heritage is just leaping and bounding like it’s a grazing goat, bouncing around so freely now.”
Still, Well views abstraction as his calling.
“I did the street art just so you could tap in,” he says.
He leaves his Instagram handle on his posters as a way to lead viewers to his abstract work.
“I’m not just a street dude. That is my challenge of 2021, to let America know.”
Well prefers to remain anonymous, but biographical details come through in the work. “Country Rooster” speaks to time he spent with family in rural Virginia growing up.
“Turtles crossing the road, no street lights at all,” he recalls. “When it gets dark, it gets dark.”
As with his name, he keeps the exact location private. His work also demonstrates a study of fine arts.
“He masters color beautifully,” says Transformer exhibitions coordinator Katie Lee, “and always mixes colors right on the canvas rather than on a palette. I think his painterly brush strokes change and adapt with each painting depending on what he seeks to convey, which at least to me, reveals full control and skill in his practice.”
His dedication to craft comes through when seeing the two modes of his practice juxtaposed. On why Malcolm X, Well says the work follows the release of a letter linking the NYPD to Malcolm X’s assassination (others claim the letter is a fake), and he chose the particular image for X’s smile.
“He’s getting the last laugh,” he says.
See Absurdly Well’s work at Transformer until April 10, and keep an eye out for it on your way there.
“Unrestricted Heritage” is on view at Transformer until April 10 and is free to attend. For more information, visit www.transformerdc.org. Follow Absurdly Well on Instagram at @absurdlywell. Works are available to purchase here.
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