Repression, Rage, and Resistance: Rodney King Revisited
An online exhibition in collaboration with Charles Moore
February 09, 2023 - March 11, 2023
Repression, Rage, and Resistance: Rodney King Revisited showcases a selection of artworks by the late Michelangelo Lovelace.
Michelangelo Lovelace (1960-2021) lived and worked in Cleveland, Ohio for most of his career. The subject matter of his art ranges from quotidian scenes of city life to policing, poverty, war, and personal investigations of Black Identity. The paintings in this exhibition respond to the civil unrest following the infamous 1991 attack of Rodney King.
Below, Charles Moore reflects on the historical importance of Lovelace’s paintings and explores their resonance with our current cultural moment.
Most instances of police brutality against Black Americans are partially documented on camera. Others are at the very least a part of public discourse and disseminated on social media. But one man, Michelangelo Lovelace, has consistently documented civil unrest, policing, and Black identity through his art since the infamous attack of Rodney King. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, the visual artist spent decades exploring poverty, war, city life, and police violence. His paintings have been presented in solo exhibitions at Springfield Museum of Art in Ohio, Cleveland School of the Arts, Progressive Insurance Corporate Headquarters, and University of Illinois at Chicago. He has been featured in group exhibitions at MOCA Cleveland, Cleveland State University Art Gallery, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and Case Western Reserves University. Lovelace won the Cleveland Arts Prize Mid-Career Artist in 2015 and multiple Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Grants for Painting. Lovelace’s work is also included in the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, the JP Morgan Chase Art Collection in New York, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in North Carolina, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, the Springfield Museum of Art in Ohio, and other art institutions.
Just after midnight on March 3, 1991, Black motorist Rodney King was pulled over by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department. King was on parole and had led police on a high-speed chase through Los Angeles earlier that evening. When officers eventually stopped him, King was violently kicked and beaten with batons for almost 15 minutes. Some twelve cops looked on, observing and commenting on the beating—yet did nothing to stop it.
Filmed by George Holliday from his apartment near the scene of the incident, the footage of the beating appeared on local television. It subsequently made it to national news and ultimately led to charges against the police. Fast-forward a year: in April 1992, a jury acquitted three of the officers of all charges relating to assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force. The verdict stunned the public and led to widespread outrage in LA that quickly spilled over to the rest of the country. Violent protests ensued, followed by days of civil unrest, resulting in thousands of injuries and more than 50 people dead.
The videotaping of Rodney King's beating marked the beginning of the documentation of American police brutality, but the only progress to date can be found in those megapixels. Police brutality has long plagued Black Americans, and little has changed in the last three decades. King, who died in 2012 at the age of 47, was far from the exception. His injuries resulted in 11 broken bones and teeth, along with skull fractures and permanent brain damage—ailments that plagued him for the rest of his life. For some victims of police brutality, the outcome is fatal.
King did not provoke the police; he wasn’t violent when the LAPD officers pulled him over—nor did he ask to become a symbol of police brutality. “I never went to school to be ‘Rodney King,’” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. His family didn’t even call him Rodney; since childhood, the construction worker had gone by his middle name: Glen. He never asked for a legacy to be thrust upon him.
So we ask again: What has changed in the more than 30 years since King’s attack? Cameras are smaller. It’s easier than ever for people to record their surroundings with the simple press of a button. Footage of police violence like what King experienced is so widespread that we can’t help but wonder whether we’ve learned anything at all.
In July 2014, New York Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo pinned Eric Garner to the ground on suspicion of selling cigarettes illegally. Garner stated “I can’t breathe” over 10 times before he died. The NYPD fired Pantaleo, and Garner’s family received a $5.9 million settlement out of court. Less than two months later, Michael Brown was fatally shot by Missouri police officer Darren Wilson—no matter that Brown held his hands up and pleaded “Don’t shoot” during the foot chase that led to his killing. A grand jury opted not to indict Wilson. In March 2020, Kentucky resident Breonna Taylor was shot to death eight times while she slept in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment during a police drug raid. Her boyfriend fired a warning shot, claiming he hadn’t heard the police knocking at their door. Taylor was an unlucky bystander—another innocent victim of police brutality against Black Americans. Officers Brett Hankison, Myles Cosgrove, and Jonathan Mattingly were acquitted, though Hankison was fired for carelessly firing into the residence. Taylor’s family received a $12 million settlement—but still, their daughter was dead. And not three months later, Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin subdued George Floyd with a knee to the neck for nine minutes. Floyd died, and again protests erupted nationwide. Chauvin was found guilty of murder and issued with a 22-year sentence; the three other officers involved in Floyd’s killing were convicted of violating the victim’s civil rights. Floyd’s family settled a $27 million wrongful death suit with the city of Minneapolis. It would seem bringing full video proof to the atrocities of police violence against African Americans in 1991, would have changed things ten, and twenty, and thirty years later, but Rodney King’s beating was just the beginning.
Lovelace painted his “Rodney King” series after visiting Los Angeles during the 1992 protests. A Black American himself, the artist sought to express his sentiments surrounding King’s beating: a blend of fury, fear, and empathy. In his artist statement for the series, he said:
"In 1992, after see[ing] the Rodney King beating videotape on television, and after having the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles in the spring of ’92 and after returning to Cleveland, I started working [on] my Rodney King series. I wanted to express the anger that as a black male I felt see[ing] another black man being beat[en] in the streets of America by the police. I was trying to express Black Pride, Black Unity, and Black Anger [toward] the American justice system. And the way us black male[s] have been treated by this so-called justice system."
The series offers deep historical context, placing Lovelace at the center of 1990s culture, not unlike his predecessors in their respective decades: Jacob Lawrence painting African American historical subjects in the 1950s, Norman Lewis taking an abstract expressionist approach to depicting Harlem in the ‘60s, Faith Ringgold creating opportunities for women of color in the ‘70s, and the iconography of Jean-Michel Basquiat in the ‘80s.
The series is composed of mixed-media pieces on faux brick paneling. The works include an assemblage of newspaper headlines, graffiti, and found photographs that help to reinforce the shockwaves of rage and despair experienced nationwide after Rodney King’s attack (and in response to the outcome of the resulting trial). There’s a sense of solidarity that permeates the series in their resemblance to city walls or even murals, thereby taking the shape of a sort of urban diary.
Silence (1993) features a blend of spray paint, newspaper clippings, and a stenciled play on words stating: YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENCED, recalling the obligatory reading of rights before a suspect is interrogated. Swaths of vibrant orange paint spill down the canvas like smears of blood, while a rough pink-and-purple stick figure of a police officer holding the neck of an innocent man showcases the power struggle continually at play. The color selection is both eerie and captivating, speaking to the corruption afflicting those in positions of power.
Amerikkkan Just-us (1992) in green paint, demands that we FREE BLACK AMERICA FROM AMERIKKKAN JUSTICE—where the KKK embedded in the word itself is a travesty of Justice. While a black hand to the right makes a peace sign, the colorful bricks adjacent to the black circle of violent acts memorialized in picture frames demonstrate how many Black Americans feel unsafe in their own homes. Lovelace reveals that justice is skewed, systemic racism plagues the country, and there is no clear path forward.
The artist’s use of spray paint is both deliberate and aesthetically erratic. No Justice No Peace (1993) depicts a white-brick backdrop covered by orange, black, and blue loops and squiggles. STOP POLICE BRUTALITY AND RACISM is written on the left, surrounded by newspaper photographs of the 1992 Los Angeles protests, while the title of the work in bold black paint takes center stage. A photograph of a young Black man gripping a chain-link fence is lightly covered in a bilious greenie glow that reinforces the sickness of a nation that perpetuates such violence against Black Americans who have done nothing to instigate it.
A Few Good Men (1992) is covered in pinks and purples, blues and greens—cooler tones alongside the words PROUD, GOOD, and BLACK stacked one on top of the other. A black-and-white newspaper photograph of Martin Luther King Junior sits atop the faux brick paneling in the upper-right-hand corner; other photographs of Black men are interspersed throughout the work and covered in layers of paint, revealing that even those who are inherently “good” risk can fall into the hands of police predators.
Crips and Bloods (1993) conveys Lovelace’s graffiti-esque recommendation that gang violence end. The red, white, and blue stars and stripes on the right side representing the American flag play up the reality of gang violence in America. A smudged image of a Black girl amid the red stripes conveys the idea of being stifled by her reality. The white chalk text in the upper right reads, “He ain’t my mother fucking uncle (Uncle Sam)” highlights social injustice, while green dollar bills floating in the center suggest the lure of money for gang members. The work encourages “Black on Black love” in that Crips, Bloods, and other gangs are home to members who are more similar than they might think: young American men who have their whole lives ahead of them, and who ought to stand in solidarity as they fight against civil injustice instead of each other.
Economic Lynching (1992) is abstract and suggestive of a building that has been looted and burned. Thick swirls of green and white paint mar the brick backdrop, while bright orange flames encircle a door or window. Here again, society is unforgiving—needlessly taking from Black communities.
Eracism (1992), reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s Scream, shows a Black man standing mouth-agape in horror, hands near his head, as three hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan look on—gathering around a large cross labeled K.K.K. Newspaper clippings show photographs of victims of racism alongside slogans of WAKEUP CALL and FIGHT RACISM. Again, the brick backdrop common to each work in the series together reveals that nowhere is safe.
Who Really Cares (1992) explores the collective apathy surrounding what amounts to Black genocide in America. Police officers have long killed Black people—Black men in particular—without a second thought. “Who really cares?” Lovelace posits in his painting, which depicts emaciated Black men standing naked and fearful, pleading for help. Yet no one is listening.
Works such as Black Holocaust (1992) and Outrage in Black (1992) are coated heavily in paint and indicative of fire—representative of how quickly the world can go up in proverbial flames.
Lovelace’s fury is apparent in his artistry. The abstract collages that comprise the series helped the artist make a name for himself, positioning him as one of the greats while simultaneously giving him a voice in the fight against police brutality. Graffiti, clipped headlines, and found photographs come together to evoke the palpable sense of rage Lovelace experienced in the wake of Rodney King’s attackers’ acquittal.
Lovelace died at 60 in his native Cleveland in 2021. His legacy remains. For the length of his career, the artist’s paintings served as visual documentations of life not only in his hometown, but in inner cities across the United States—including Los Angeles in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots. The artist continually examined racial discourse and economic tensions, offering a unifying, community-oriented take on living in a place where violence can break out at any given moment. And while police brutality continues to plague Black Americans, people like Lovelace have given voice to the suffering inflicted by systemic racism. These people include, as in the case of Rodney King, any person with a camera who is willing to hit the record button to document and confront police injustice.