The work of Eric N. Mack has all the bizarre, irreconcilable contiguities of a Borgesian list: velour, paint, an image of Mary J. Blige baffled by fame, curtain rods, dye, mattress fragments, a hoodie, a human being, an open umbrella, snatches of early Nicolas Ghesquière, the hauteur of Vivienne Westwood, safety pins, patches of the deepest saturated color, a peplum or a bolero (or neither), and images upon images upon images. To search for meaning in the relay between the elements is to lose oneself in abstraction, as if in a labyrinth. One cannot decipher the code by summing the materials or looking for thematic continuities. The work generates a hum, a vibe. It is received whole, like the sacrament. I am often troubled by the anxiety that there are more materials than I have noticed, more than I am capable of noticing: a small strip of tape, a piece of lint, drops of sweat, something that sits just beyond the reach of my perception.
My first encounter with the artist’s work was during his residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem in 2015. He was attaching found fabric and repurposed clothing to a large steel armature that nearly filled the entire studio. The architectural, even Baroque ambition of the work was evident. There were intimations of an inside and an outside, the ghost of a gabled roof, and an irregular rhythm of slouching apertures suggestive of doors and windows. There was the faintest murmur of the monad, of an effort to construct something as self-contained as a house.
I noticed a worn copy of Gilles Deleuze’s The Fold on the floor, beneath a window that looked out onto 125th Street, onto the long promenade of stalls and awnings held precariously together by the same steel frames that Mack used. I said something facile about Deleuze. The artist generously changed the subject; he had studied him closely and had no time for dilettantes. And yet even now, I suspect that book was a stray fragment of the tower he was erecting in the middle of the room. His work spoke of Deleuze’s fixation with the intersection of infinite, differential, unbounded planes; of rippling curtains, things that coil and uncoil themselves in perpetuity, and materials that gather like shadows. I felt that these planes of fabric continued infinitely beyond the frame of the armature, that he had arrested their tectonic shifts if only for a moment.
In that studio at the onset of his career, Mack was locked in a Babelesque struggle to combine all the formal trajectories of his future work into a single figure, avant la lettre. This is characteristic of writers and their first works. Those who spend their childhood in gifted somnolence and suddenly awaken for the first time, garrulous and steaming, and now have to say everything that’s been held in reserve for so long. In Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, he condenses every theme he will take up over the length of his career into a single work: the interrogation, the memory play, the two-man routines of vaudeville, the vagaries of infidelity. When Jay-Z was asked why he had never been able to replicate the virtuosity of his first album, Reasonable Doubt, he replied that it had taken the first 26 years of his life to make it.