Michael Jackson grew up with his brothers in a two-room house in Gary, Indiana. His mother was a Jehovah's Witness and his father worked in a steel mill. His struggle to become one of the most popular performers in the world - which columnist Gary Younge has described as a 'trans-racial experiment' - was the centre of gravity for a project by Los Angeles-based artists Edgar Arceneaux and Rodney McMillian, conceived as a radical history project which would read the story of Jackson's self-construction in tandem with the history of his class, against the collapse of the steel industry and the shift in the US to a post-industrial economy.
As their project progressed, however, Arceneaux and McMillian found the unstable ground of history shifting beneath their feet. In late 2003 Arceneaux heard a news story about the steel industry that seemed connected to Jackson's biography, and decided that he must go to Gary. Six days later he and McMillian were there, searching for Jackson's childhood home. Relying on his memory of a street address used as a title for a Jacksons' record, McMillian led them to 2400 Jackson Street, where they found an abandoned structure complete with boarded-up windows, a burned-out roof and a wretched stump. Here, they thought, was the shattered mise-en-scène of Jackson's childhood. The artists set about documenting the building. After three hours of shooting video and photographs, however, a neighbourhood drug dealer relayed to them that they had the wrong address. The title of the record was 2300 Jackson Street, not 2400; the Jacksons had lived a block down the street. When they arrived at their destination, however, the artists found an inert bungalow with none of the charged aura of the first house. The wrong house possessed an intensity that the real one did not; its abandonment, emptiness and ruin served as a catalyst for the artists' fantasies about their elusive subject.
Installed at Susanne Vielmetter's Culver City gallery, Arceneaux and McMillian's Michael Jackson Project (2003-4) was constructed of many such intense, dislocated moments. Jackson was everywhere and nowhere: he framed the exhibition but was missing from it. As such, the exhibition seemed held together by a gravity that was about to fail, sending its constituent parts hurtling out of orbit. Music was a persistent motif. One video monitor showed McMillian in T-shirt and clown make-up, singing Gladys Knight's song 'The Way We Were/Try To Remember' under a cold blue light. Arceneaux's To Kill a Mockingbird (2004) placed the hands of early 20th-century French pianist Alfred Cortot alongside a loop from the 1962 film version of the book (hands opening and closing a cigar box full of toys from the elusive neighbour Boo Radley). Only a few pieces of the evidence gathered in Gary made an appearance. A picture of the ruined stump from outside the 'wrong' house hovered enigmatically above Arceneaux's video monitors; McMillian's 2300 Jackson Street (2004) paired a single photograph of the 'real' Jackson home with the lyrics to 'Hi Ho', from Disney's Snow White (1938), sung as the dwarfs go off to work in the mines. In such a context the lyrics are horrific: 'It ain't no trick to get rich quick/ If you dig, dig, dig, with a shovel or a pick/In a mine! In a mine! In a mine! In a mine!/ Where a million diamonds shine!'
The best works threatened to des-troy the delicate web of coincidence and association. McMillian's Balloon (2004), a large, cracked asteroid teetering on a two-metre column, dominated the exhibition, its malign presence cryptic but powerful. Arceneaux's Untitled (2004), which juxtaposed Cortot's cadaverous hand with an article from the Gary Tribune on serial murderer David Maust, was less imposing but equally disruptive. Cortot's fingers, whose contortions reproduce Maust's imbalanced stutter-step on the cove of the newspaper, seem to reference Jackson's single glitter-gloved hand, but here the hand is severed and cadaverous: the Prince of Pop painted by a leering Théodore Géricault. What these pieces have to tell us about Jackson is unresolved - it's not clear, after all, that he is much more than a cipher for either artist - but they suggest that the singer's radical experiments in self-construction and historical revision may have ghastly consequences.
Arceneaux's 'Drawings of Removal' (1999-ongoing), concurrently shown at the UCLA Hammer Museum, maintain a similar economy of means and intensity of effect. The work is characterized by its singular attitude to process: although it has been shown several times, it is still developing. Each exhibition is an opportunity for Arceneaux to return to his archive and re-work it for the duration of the exhibition. Indeed, visitors to 'Drawings of Removal' might well have come across Arceneaux working away among piles of books, newspapers and coffee cups, with Charlie Parker playing on the dusty studio boom-box. Such a shifting archive proposes a unique challenge for any museum: Arceneaux's nonchalant attitude towards the preservation of his dense, gorgeous pencil drawings seems destined to drive conservators batty.
In one recent incarnation 'Drawings of Removal' took on the disorganized structure of memory: its clutter had much in common with an attic or an antiquarian bookshop. Stacked mailers from the Studio Museum of Harlem sat in one front window; on another was taped a drawing and a fortune-cookie aphorism: 'That special person loves to see the light in your eyes.' The two walls immediately facing the entrance were covered with several layers of hung paper, which was cut away to reveal drawings beneath. Several sections had been either left blank or simply marked for future work, while others had been obsessively drawn, cut away and drawn again. Several were marked simply by their absence: one could see the sketched outline of a removed drawing. Further passages were a thick fog of scumbled graphite. Some drawings had been up for months; others were drawn and cut away in a day and then laid about the room, some gathering sneaker marks and coffee stains. A few were impulsively taped up in another section of the gallery.
Interestingly, Arceneaux is not always the agent of this obsessive reorganization; on at least two occasions it was the audience who moved the drawings to their new positions on the wall. A third wall was mirrored, with an aerial view of a Southern California neighbourhood (a dead end street, a cul-de-sac in a shape reminiscent of a bone) burned in the recent fires taped in the centre. A grid marked out this zone for future work. Arranged throughout the room were objects that suggested the scene of a caffeine-fuelled all-nighter: audio cassettes, coffee cups, artist's materials, scattered drawings, spotlight lamps, empty cans of Mountain Dew, stacks of open philosophy and art history books, and pages torn from discarded LA weeklies.
Like the Michael Jackson Project, this series began with a trip. Arceneaux travelled with his father to his home town, Beaumont, Texas, which the younger man had never seen. Almost everything that his father remembered was gone. 'Drawings of Removal', then, chooses many of its motifs from a repertoire of misrecognitions, from the artist's own memory and from his father's recollections. Factories and houses emerge from graphite haze and then recede again. One factory is drawn repeatedly upside down, to mark both its persistence in memory and its disappearance from the modern Beaumont. Another house - the father's missing childhood home - was drawn inverted beneath a green lawn.
Arceneaux's art can be as intense as critical theory and as difficult; it certainly requires a similar investment from those seeking to appreciate it. It is a fact that the work needs to be properly investigated for its systems to avoid appearing over-hermetic or its iconology too private. But as with critical theory, when moments of epiphany materialize, they are stunning in their sheer expressive economy. The inverted house is just such a moment: a clear, architectonic drawing suddenly sprung from the dense and messy loam of memory. Which is to say that, like much theory, 'Drawings of Removal' trusts its audience. It stakes everything on their patience, good faith, doubt and intellect; they are the gravity that holds the work in fragile constellation. So too does the project understand Arceneaux less as its author than as its first and most critical reader. Every day he works is a conversation between the artist now and what yesterday's labour left behind.