Tag Archives: African American art

High Road: Derrick Adams at MAD

Derrick Adams: Sanctuary, through August 12, 2018; at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle (59th St.)

Adams’s art practice has been grounded from the start on shifting, interdisciplinary mediums and methods; thus, it makes so much aesthetic sense (first of all) to see his recent collage-type production in the context of an installation at MAD.  The nominally functional associations with this venue are manifest in Adams’s theme and commemoration: safety and comfort on the road for African American travelers in Jim Crow America, as published in The Negro Motorist Greenbook (1936-67).  Adams’s titular terminology–sanctuary–may recall for some the decade-long traveling exhibition documented in the volume, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, (Twin Palms Publishers, 2000), to which Adams’s project offers supplement and antidote.

The gallery is bifurcated by a raised, yellow-lined “highway” reminiscent of an enlarged toy car track set, dotted with Dada vehicles comprised of sport caps of the era on wheels.  At several “intersections,” doors open onto a back wall of sharp-edged, cubistic collage-paintings, suggesting various types of establishments and topography through building-valise-parking lot hybrids embellished with key objects.  This group is rhythmically unified by brick patterns that have appeared throughout Adams’s oeuvre and may symbolize security and strength.  Elsewhere, slices of the road continue up pedestals topped with architectural models that repeat the door motif in miniature and are partly cast from milk cartons to evoke self-sufficient “beacons.”  Another wall is papered with blown-up, marked-up pages from The Green Book; which engages viewers in a search for recognized names and locales.  A playroom/craft shop sensibility hovers (also seen in much of Adams’s earlier work), which, leavens the historical phenomenon at hand, while the clean, carefully constructed geometry and clever signifying throughout  betray refined formal and conceptual preoccupation.

Icons and Scripture at The Studio Museum

At the Studio Museum in Harlem:

Regarding the Figure; through August 6.

Rico Gaston: Icons, 2007-2017; through August 27.

Jamal Shabazz; through August 27.

Excerpts; through July 2.

Graphic Design from the Studio Museum Archive; through July 2.  

Spring at SMH kicked off, as it has in recent years, with “open studios,” at its in-house spaces, recently inhabited by this year’s three winners of its astute, important artist residency program that has launched many a serious art career.  The event was a breath of fresh (as opposed to gallery) air for visitors and seemingly energizing for the artists, whose light-filled niches were scattered mainly with studies and works in progress.  Andy Robert had already covered his walls with color grid-charts – quickly reminiscent of Albers, Chuck Close, Stanley Whitney –  and had several mushy and atmospheric, deep bluish canvases leaning around.  I asked him about Ab Ex; he implied that, in the end, figuration will emerge.  Julia Phillips had some small, highly crafted metal and ceramic objects, several  strung up on rack-like fixtures—absurd and slightly scary.  Autumn Knight confronted me as I entered the circle of visitors seated in her room, which was punctuated by a string of colored light bulbs strewn across the floor.  Although admittedly jaded by decades of lukewarm performance art and make-shift “happenings,” I still succumbed to her passive-aggressive entré and the relational group around her.  Museum director Thelma Golden was on hand, cheering on her young charges and us, despite her copious globe-encompassing activities as a leading art curator, educator and advocate.  A brilliant program developed nearly at the founding of this indispensable institution, which culminates in an exhibition of a body of work by each in the museum proper.

Main gallery (street-level):  In the featured show of figurative works from the collection Barkley L. Hendricks’s divine  painting, Lawdy Mama (1969) presides like a Byzantine icon—both mortal portrait and female deity; also, at the moment, a moving tribute to his recent passing. Another show-stopper is Jordan Casteel’s putty-painted, pudgy, in-your-face stroller-age twins (2017), which will melt anyone without a heart of stone right into the pushed-up picture plane. Lynette Yiadom Boakye,* known for imaginary painted portraiture, is here (as well as currently at MoMA, in “Unfinished  Conversations”); make sure to look closely at Eldzior Cortor’s sensitively painted, slightly melancholic women against a Surrealist-tinged backdrop (1949).  Some photo stand-outs: Lorraine O’Grady’s** dual photo portrait profile of a young woman and an Egyptian bust (conceived in a series of c. 1980); a back and front self-portrait head-shot diptych by Lyle Ashton Harris* (1990s); a sitter on a bed seen in a mirror Zanele Muholi (2015). That’s for starters.  As is often the case with SMH’s collection shows, the cross-chronological installation proposes and reveals engaging links (and at times even lineages) that distinguish an amorphous African diaspora art, within historical American art and the larger art world.

Upstairs: Rico Gaston’s throw-back ‘70s poster-album cover, graphic commemorations are, further, subtly crafted, color-coded Op art, with Precisionist linear rays emanating from sparse portrait montages, in a dizzying serial presentation.

More twins and twinning–a winning trope a the selection of street photography by Jamal Shabazz.

Downstairs:  The “Excerpts” show gets into a greyish area of postwar aesthetics known colloquially as “word art” – and its vicissitudes, in terms of form/s, content, and presentation.  Among the artists included: Charles Gaines, master of this (and other) reputedly esoteric conceptual art sub-genre; Glenn Ligon, near-exclusively a “language” artist who first brought layered expressions of personal and shared identity and history inhered in literature into the mix in the early 1990s; and Kara Walker, with a shocking, brave, and powerful piece (her “sign” doesn’t translate into mere text – you’ll see).  A coolly printed, breezy but compelling narrative piece by outré hipster Juliana Huxtable moves far into the new millennium; along with an alternative, low-tech, large-scale scrawl by Xavier Simmons (better known as a photographer).

Bonus: A display of graphic materials related to the museum and its exhibitions from its founding (1968) to the present; which finds an interesting counterpart in the current show, “A Bit of Matter: the MoMA PS1 Archives, 1976-2000” (MoMA/PS 1, through September 10).

*Also in the current “Whitney Biennial” (WMAA, through June 11).

**Also in the current exhibition, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985”;  (Brooklyn Museum, through September 17); several others also in both shows.

“We Mourn Our Loss”: Kerry James Marshall Retrospective Right On Time

At The Met Breuer, through January 29, 2017:

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry 

The morning after the election debacle brought immediately to mind a painting in this timely (for the artist, the art world, and American society at large) Marshall retrospective.  On a huge, gold-fringed canvas tarpaulin, a glitter-winged, but gravity-bound women fusses with a flower arrangement in a pristine, spacious living room.  One wall is adorned with a banner featuring medallions of MLK, JFK, and RFK above the slogan, “we mourn our loss”–itself echoing a cloud of fading photo-screened portraits hovering at the top of the composition above a carefully glitter-scripted caption, “in memory of.”  With a silvery-grisaille companion piece hung nearby, in which memories of the 1960s infiltrate a domestic interior veiled by shiny beaded curtains that can read also as bars and grounded with the inscription, “what a time what a time,”  Marshall’s layered iconography and mix-and-match painting techniques provoked in this viewer a palpable nostalgia for the immediate post-Civil Rights decade or so possibly approaching the intensity of Marshall’s own that inspired them.

Marshall’s entire 30-some-year oeuvre has been related in content to the subdued but rich private and pubic, social and emotional summaries encompassed by these two mentioned works–first recognized definitively in a breakthrough series based on urban-periphery “garden apartment” housing projects erected through the 1960s and 1970s, here exhibited in full (about a half dozen unstretched canvases from the mid-1990s).  In these vaguely Norman Rockwell-ian blow-ups, bicycles, dogs and school kids (except they’re all black) abound.  Adults are scarce, but, when they do appear, are sartorially Afrocentric or literally white-collar.    sporadically dripped passages over and under figurative imagery seems screen-like and stain-like, in terms of clouded memories.  The aesthetics and messages overall vacillate between tentative and idyllic, challenging, disappointing, and ultimately loving, through the eyes of a knowing artist from early on destined to stay the course.  Especially gripping (perhaps as I had looked at it closely years before, now encountered in a political context that lent nearly to tears) is a scene of three youths performing a solemn and private patriotic ceremony in a patch of yard, which bears the slogans, “Happy July 4th Bang,” and “We are one.”

Marshall’s stylistic signatures of very dark skin color and deliberate, stoic poses can evoke traditional African votives–ameliorated with the Western realist figurative tradition in which he is deeply ensconced.  Canonical art history seeps into his naturalism one way or another throughout, variously referenced and appropriated.  This is most obvious in an intermittent, loose series of artist-at-work pictures, capped by a bubbling, stocked and staffed  studio extravaganza to rival Courbet’s ubiquitous proto-modern prototype (The Painter’s Studio . . . , 1855).   A tour de force is a bustling hair salon scene emanating shades of Ernie Barnes and Barkley Hendricks as well as Rockwell, Archibald Motley, and maybe a hint of Kehinde Wiley, not to mention a shout out to Chris Ofili directly in a reproduced poster of his art hung in the salon–all crowned with a sarcastic riff on the Renaissance novelty of anamorphosis–as you walk across the picture plane, an abstract blob in the foreground becomes a disembodied blond Barbie-head.

Then there are the ethereally-hued and musically-ornamented pictures of black love–family; romantic; in myriad settings, which stop short of both sentimentally and irony to convey a rare authenticity (for lack of better term).  Add light-box-presented comics that Marshall has developed over the past decade surrounding a character called “Mastr.”  Final bonus: none of the artists I’ve mentioned, but many more, are included in a gallery of “favorites” across time and place from the Met’s collection selected by Marshall.

Great paintings change through time, carrying their pasts with them.  Many in this show fit that.  Any American should be moved by them; as well as anyone interested in the continuing powerful potential of figurative painting.

Works described (google):

Souvenir I, 1997 (MoCA, Chicago)

Memento #5, 2003 (Nelson-Atkins)

Untitled (Studio), 2014 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

School of Beauty, 2012 (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Bang, 1994 (Progressive Corp.)

Salvaged Furniture; Pink Playroom; Bling-based Illusions; at the Studio Museum in Harlem

At the SMH (125th St.) through June 25th:

“Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street” (main galleries)

“Ebony G. Patterson: . . . when they grow up . . .” (downstairs)

“Rashaad Newsome: This is What I Want to See” (upstairs)

Although their sensibilities could not be more different, both McMillian and Patterson share an impulse to recoup real lives through found objects, sometimes with a heavy, manipulative hand, sometimes simply through juxtapositions.  Both are invested in material and social bricolage–the kind of upside-down–or rather downside-up, make-shift visual punning that art-magician David Hammons introduced into the mainstream postmodern art world in direct context of “black experience.”

McMillian’s approach is conceptual; yet, he has a palpable empathy for material (full-formed and fragmented) that has been interpolated by extensive use until thread-bare and discarded.  His sculptural wall and freestanding works can appear the result of rescue operations–a Sisyphus-like recovery of the spirits of those who marked and imbued them with meaning over time.  A broken couch crudely cemented together.  A defunct refrigerator-turned-sentinel-monument; bed sheets used as canvases.  A giant, abstract “painting” comprised of cracked and repaired linoleum flooring.  (Many among the 99% will identify with the periodic decorating event of choosing from among conventionalized faux-stone linoleum patterns, a cheap way to spruce up kitchens and easy to clean, though not especially durable.)

One tableau, in which a pile of paperback books stands in for a coffee table between two serviceable chairs (despite their missing seat cushions), perhaps nods most closely to Levi-Strauss’s anthropological concept of bricolage, whereby re-purposing cast-offs is propelled by economic necessity, and which breeds ingenuity. There are also a few enigmatic, thickly “tarred” wall-work abstractions that have affinities with the painting surfaces of Rashid Johnson; a melting “Hall of Justice” cut-out canvas; and several other assisted readymades wide open to myriad interpretations.

Patterson’s installation comes on the heels of her brilliant show at The Museum of Arts and Design, in which a definitive move from collage-ornamented painting to profuse assemblage was featured (see post).  Since her first wide exposure (c. a decade ago), her oeuvre has centralized Jamaican ethnic and social identities; and been characterized by a convulsive link between a contemporary neo-baroque surface beauty–especially “dancehall” style–and oppressive, economic and physical violence–with particular focus on post-adolescent young men.

Here, a candy-colored, furry-carpeted “playroom,” replete with dangling balloon-baubles and all manner of toys strewn about, looks to a younger set – and takes viewers down to their level to peruse the specifics — from chalk boards to superheros to guns to game balls; and especially, a mini-teepee with a floral memorial tucked inside.  On the walls are profusely ornamented portrait photographs that stare, icono-like, into the pink void, along with montaged individuals now “playing,” imaginatively, together.  The grounded objects incarnate the real childhoods shortened and lost, upon which her deeper, suggestive commentary revolves.  If the word “authentic” has any meaning any more, it fits Patterson’s committed and always eye-popping art.  She sticks emphatically to both focused concerns and a hot-house aesthetic strongly associated with Caribbean cultural heritage, energetically spinning it personal.

Ebony G. Patterson, detail of installation the Studio Museum in Harlem (3/25/16)
Ebony G. Patterson, detail of installation the Studio Museum in Harlem (3/25/16)

Newsome’s first widely exhibited works (creeping up on a decade) were small, sharp-cut collages of bling from fashion-type ads to create heraldic, interlacing designs.  As signifiers, the shiny, anamorphic illusions suggested queer hip hop aesthetics, sometimes infused with body parts and other disparate images for a Surrealist edge.  Gradually they grew larger and more complexly Photoshop-kaleidoscopic, with spell-binding results in a solo show at Marlborough Chelsea in 2011.  Since then, he has also picked up with related Op-Art-ish videos and a further push into non-objective abstraction, though generated from the same sources.  In the selection here, the all-overall patterning is at a premium, with the photo-works eliding into a large-screen video fantasia in a darkened viewing room; while two shorter videos in smaller format centralize the calligraphic motions of a dancer against the dizzying backdrops.  Again, an artist immersed in his niche who has not yet exploited its potential yield.