The Meaning in Everything: Synchronicity at Roberts Projects

Impressionistic painting of a Black man in a pinstripe suit reclines on a floral-patterned sofa to read a book. His legs are crossed.
Wangari Mathenge, The Ascendants III (Assault At Mogadishu), 2020. Oil on canvas. 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. Photo: Alan Schaffer.

There are four main characters in Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, all of whom are intertwined by synchronicities. Two are stuck in direct opposition. Tereza places heavy significance on coincidences, which color her life with beauty and meaning. Tomas, conversely, is burdened by the infinite choices and paths he could take. Kundera encapsulates that anxiety and writes, “we can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our years to come.”

The concept of synchronicity—the simultaneous occurrence of phenomena that seem related but aren’t—has its roots in astrology, mondalogy, correspondence, sympathetic magic, Tibetian Buddhism, and theI Ching. Synchronicity’s influence from ancient Chinese medical and scientific texts stem from how they question what likes to accompany what, rather than what causes what. The ten artists in Synchronicity, recently on view at Roberts Projects in Los Angeles, each embody this search for meaning in the infinite unknowability of life. Some explain the inexplicable with destiny, or God, while others embrace uncertainty. Ultimately, they all share their respective means of coping with a universe that is, at first glance, wholly chaotic. 

Painting of a Black woman lying on the ground, a pillow under her head, her limbs folded and settled. A book lies open on the ground, the cover reads "Imperial Reckoning." She is surrounded by patterns, some reminiscent of African dress (e.g. "HUG WENU UFISADI..." is written on her pant leg), others classic American print (e.g. argyle, checkers, floral).
Wangari Mathenge, The Ascendants VI (Imperial Reckoning), 2020. Oil on canvas, 68 x 90 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. Photo: Alan Schaffer.

Wangari Mathenge‘s work is rife with visual clues that hint at heavy personal significance. In The Ascendants III (Assault at Mogadishu) (2020), the Kenyan artist saturates the scene with 1970s cool. A man in a grey, three piece pin-stripe suit with a dotted tie sits on a creamy couch with orange and gold floral accents reading a copy of the 1977 book Assault at Mogadishu by German journalists Hermann Kai and Peter Koch, an inside account of a German special operation against international terrorism. The Ascendants VI (Imperial Reckoning) (2020) portrays a complementary scene to Ascendants III by introducing an exuberant color palette, a different subject, and different books. A woman lies on the ground with her eyes closed, dressed in beautiful, silky gold and brown pants, bare feet, a black dotted shirt, and a cheetah-print head scarf. The book laying on the black and white spotted rug below her is Caroline Elkins’s Imperial Reckoning, about the atrocities committed by the British against the Kenyan Kikuyu people. Among the books on the table, between the vibrant purple couches wrapped in red and white windowpane check blankets and an assortment of leaf-patterned brightly colored pillows, is The Anarchy, a chronology by William Dalrymple on how the British colonized India. 

Kundera writes that if Tereza had not heard Beethoven playing on the radio, if Tomas had not been seated in her section of the restaurant reading a book, or if he had come even five minutes earlier, they would not have met and their story would not exist. Each work in this exhibition seeks to show the viewer how they create order and composition with otherwise random objects and subjects. What’s more, they remind the viewer that the disorderliness of the universe, the seemingly meaningless events of the mundane and the day-to-day, can become treasure troves of signals and meaning if you pay attention.

Vivid portrait of a Black person with hands held together just below their face, eyes drifted just out of frame, painted with layered brushstrokes of earthy reds, blues, browns, greens.
Amoako Boafo, Nuerki, 2019. Oil on canvas. 40 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California; Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.
Mixed-media piece, including a painting of two black vases against rich, purple and red backgrounds, and what appears to be a photograph of shrubbery. Foregrounded, a sculpted piece of what seems to be a twig protruding from an apple-shaped orb, below which are scattered a pile of multi-colored, Lego- or perhaps candy-like objects, along the bottom of the frame.
Betye Saar, Green Vision at the Villa, 1994. Mixed media collage. 14 x 11 x 1 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

The synchronicities within this exhibition play out like “slice of life” works. Methenge’s duo, like Tereza, combine a series of symbols that are deeply significant to the artist; books, clothing, and furniture that point to a specific moment in time and result in the final outcome of the work. Betye Saar’s assemblage series Visions at the Villa (1994) does this as well, perhaps more abstractly; her assemblages combine a multitude of significant materials that culminate in living memory boxes. They appear as a string of non-causal coincidences that invite the viewer into these highly intimate scenes, as seen too with the expressionistic portraiture of Amoako Boafo in Nuerki (2019). Boafo brings the viewer face-to-face with their subjects. Each artist combines signifiers and symbols that relate heavily to who they are. Though the viewer may not know what influences them, they can still bask in these moments that contain a multitude of meanings. 

Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, CA
September 19 – December 5, 2020