There is a distinct restraint in Lay Me Down in Praise, 2022, Justen LeRoy’s three-channel—and to my mind, three chapter—video installation at Art + Practice (the show is a collaboration between A + P and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles). The multidisciplinary LA-born and -raised artist believes that melismas—vocal runs popularized by R&B music and rooted in the songs of the Black church, which demonstrate a singer’s range and emotional dexterity—have analogs in various geological processes and activities. Yet even with this all-encompassing conceit, it’s noteworthy that the artist is measured with his metaphors and elaborations. In LeRoy’s progressive arrangement of video portraits and sounds, interpolated with natural landscapes—a “Black environmental strategy,” as he terms it—the earliest sung note doesn’t appear until the last moments of the work’s first chapter.
LeRoy has a special interest in music. For the Hammer Museum’s 2020 edition of Made in L.A., he contributed an audio collage, On God, 2020, featuring voice notes from friends and family, songs across different genres, and a selection of various sounds, including falling rain and the trill of a dial tone. This piece intimates the everyday noises LeRoy heard at his father’s barbershop growing up. Lay Me Down is a continuation of this collage work, with sourced and original video footage from LeRoy and a collaborator, artist and filmmaker Kordae Jatafa Henry.
Lay Me Down is best absorbed from a position as close to the floor as possible so that you can feel the vibrations produced by the work’s bass. From this vantage, you can see how the screens are arranged around the viewer, like open arms going in for an embrace. Scenes of waves, shore birds, and people seated with hands raised heavenward blink into a second chapter of glaciers melting into impossibly blue seas. The first sung note is expressed like a question, as though it were a voice hearing itself for the first time. It conveys something beyond words and is full of meaning—maybe the sight of a glacier breaking is the best way to describe it. By the third and final chapter, the melismas are more self-certain and layered. Lava erupts from a volcano. A person’s cradling arms fill the cradling screens. Basaltic magma flows down a slope while the notes stretch on, making flesh and earth solemnly but strategically converge.