“Derrick Adams: Interior Life”; through April 20, 2019
at Luxembourg & Dayan (64 E. 77th St.,NYC)
Working with curatorial impresario Francesco Bonami, Derrick Adams has grafted a fantasy modernist home onto the walls of this multi-tiered fancy townhouse gallery. His vision is pristine and showroom-like, each flattened tableau (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, etc.), mixing geometric motifs that glide between wallpaper, textile, furniture, and flooring with simulated shiny surfaces–the artist’s (collective) ideal interior (a double-entendre, as in the exhibition title). At the same time, the schema as a whole is credible and relatable, aided by quirky and familiar details and appointments, such as honeycomb tiling or candy-colored alphabet magnets on a refrigerator–as well as the individuality appended through framed cubistic collage portraits, in upright profile, included as part of the decor and reflecting (in context) the inhabitants, directly or indirectly. (These works on paper are part of a loose series completed over several years inspired by passers-by near his studio). It’s all further set into motion by the intermittent appearance of small images of African sculpture—in a mirror, a sink, on countertops, in corners—that read as trickster-like spirits—perhaps apotropaic. They are differentiated from the tangible African “art” displayed in some of the spaces.
For over two decades, Adams has maintained, above all, a fluidity between topical subjects, broad themes, very mixed mediums, personal expression (typically muted), and art references—here a nod to Sol Lewitt’s foray into fresco-like environments seems apparent. The strong graphic style, anchored by repetitions of varied masonry patterning throughout, can be traced back to a provocative 2009 show in which he revisited his youth and the vicissitudes of his native Baltimore, largely through the semiotic lens of its architecture–colonial, neoclassical, colonial, postwar housing projects(see link ). His emerging design aesthetic was highlighted in his installation at the Museum of Arts and Design last year (see link) that mashed up playroom-plywood ingenuity, his now characteristic cubistic stoicism, and conceptual poignancy on the theme of “The Green Book” (turns out, especially presciently for American society at large).
In short, the current show wows with boldy colored and pressed, Op-arti-ish patterning, brought to life by the stately patchwork portraits and (perhaps) ancestors that hold down the fort.
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.
Whitney Museum of American Art, through Feb. 6, 2018
A large-scale pastel drawing titled, Surveying the Family Seat (2017) which plants a strong, contemporary male figure in a high-ground position peering out over an extensive landscape, introduces and encapsulates the solemn, hermetic privilege that pervades this series of recent pastel and charcoal portraits by Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. 1985). Here and throughout, verdant, serpentine terrain, rhythmically and colorfully delineated, melds into fabric folds and textile patterns, with emphasis on sartorial details and highlighted patches of exposed skin. The latter is carried through from the artist’s earlier work, first in ballpoint pen and then other media, in which dense black-on-black face and body images were inflected with peaks of “shine” (following Krista Thompson, Shine: The Visual Economy of Light . . ., 2015) that could read as both emanating and reflective, and also allude to scarification and masking. Here the effect is subdued and woven into overall naturalistic representation and implied narrative.
A decorative wall text imitating a book-plate frontispiece introduces a credible but fictional backstory grounding the disjointed visual chronicle of the multi-tiered, upper-crust Nigerian clan featured in the ensuing display. Linked through marriages and the business of maintaining wealth and status, the current heritors of a lineage portrait collection are a gay couple depicted in a work titled, Newlyweds on Holiday (2016)– artistic cousins to Kehinde Wiley’s intricately patterned pairs. Kerry James Marshall’s domestic insights and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s imaginary portrait sitters are also recalled, forthrightly.
Ojih Odutola is of a millennial generation of artists of African descent working within and outside of Africa who are stretching diasporaic and transnational vision in multi-directions for art content. Between them, new routes of artistic exchange—literal and metaphorical—have proliferated. Beyond Yiadom-Boakye, a number of woman among them have pursued figurative modes with specific emphasis on simulated fabric and/or fashion flair including Amy Sherald, Jordan Casteel, and Njideke Akunliyi Crosby, the latter a compatriot (Nigerian) émigré and perhaps closest painterly peer of Ojih Odutola. The works of these woman share a photo-like directness, incorporating typically shallow foregrounds that convey the desire to be boldy apprehended.
Among the distinctions of Ojih Odutola’s realism in this series is an enigmatic sensibility percolating beneath the surface linear fluidity of her pastel technique. Mostly, the depicted characters hold gazes that slyly confront or obviously deny viewers-voyeurs. Gender ambiguity is a recurring theme, mashed up with postmodern global styling and localizing trends. Ojih Odutola wrangles the controlled pose and inner ennui of her faux-subjects in the manner of John Singer Sargent—updated with the self-possessed polish and countour definition of Barkley Hendricks. Finally, tilting picture planes bring japonisme into Ojih Odutola’s orbit of inspirations, and white-on-white, veil-like layerings add a breezy elegance across several works–formal effects coaxed effectively out her earlier close-cropped monochromatic variations.
“Kara Walker: Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present…” at Sikkema Jenkins (530 W. 22nd St.) through Oct. 14.
“Aurel Schmidt: I Rot before I Ripen” at PPOW (535 W. 22nd St. 3rd Fl.) through Oct. 7.
“Barbara Chase-Riboud: Malcolm X: Complete” at Michael Rosenfeld (100 11th Ave. @19th St.) through Nov. 4.
“Mary Corse” at Lehman Maupin (536 W. 22nd St.) through Oct. 7.
“Suzan Frecon” at David Zwirner (525 W. 19th St.) through Oct. 21.
“Maya Lin: Ebb and Flow” at Pace (537 W. 24th St.) through Oct. 7.
“Janet Fish: Poppies and Pinwheels” at DC Moore (535 W. 22, 2nd Fl.) through Sept. 30.
The one with the most pre and post-opening press so far lives up to the billing – Kara Walker (Sikkema Jenkins). These biting, heart-wrenching, sprawling, churning, Americanist, Freudian, large-scale drawings and drawing-like paintings push everything she has done over the past two decades to newly excruciating heights. Beyond a challenge, they dare viewers into her racially-charged, amalgamated visions of depraved eroticism and emotional and physical violence through which the powerful have subjugated and bankrupted others historically; and ensnare with fluid linear elegance and mash-up iconography in which all manner of images across time and place are re-mixed and spewed. Staying her decades-long artistic course, a reinvigorated investment in her hard-core thematics of race and linked monochromatic artistic roots are palpable. She also continues with her extensive, only partly parodic exhibition (as well as art) titles–read this one in full at the gallery and consider it when musing on the work. However, a shorter phrase wielded by precedent upstart Robert Colescott in his own pre-emptive defense of devil’s advocate race-baiting in his art would be apt: “Self-censorship is a cop-out.” No question, Walker remains one of the most gutsy, defiantly provocative artists out there.
Aurel Schmidt (PPOW) also specializes in colossal, curvy, psyche-scape drawings–in her case, post-pubescent, priapic fantasies conveyed through stoner-Eden settings inundated with butterflies, daisies, snakes, and vulva-centered spiderwebs. Her sensibility blends faux-naivite with a dash of harajuku and a druggie- decadent twinkle. Hello Kitty-ish kitties may be a bit rabid; and a few exquisitely drawn rodents (one on a skate board) just above floor level tug back to urban earth the flighty fancies envisioned above. Trigger warning: the “high times” sexual undercurrent explodes (yes) in a back room installation-homage to the erect member of her bf—including several graphic close-ups. Good for her (the careful attention to detail seems to express). But the critter-and-flora-packed, delicately rendered mirages are the wow factor.
The sculptural sentinels, or steles (as they have been aptly, described) of Barbara Chase-Riboud (Michael Rosenfeld) are majestic, yet at a human scale that addresses the viewer as an autonomous entity. The past decade (mainly) of work here is a collective tour de force of her renowned signature mode developed over nearly fifty years: thick folded slabs of cast steel and aluminum combined with densely draped, ropey textile elements. The results of this gendered yin-yang formulation suggest soulful effigies akin to ka statuary of ancient Egypt. The metal sections and knotty, braided skeins visually meld through the monochromatic (mainly) schemes—deepest blacks, rich golds, and one blood red show stopper, furthering this effect of “beings.” The works featured ostensibly complete a series begun in 1969 dedicated to Malcolm X—not at all a secondary aspect of the hovering content, though conferred after her initial foray into this formalist vein.
Mary Corso has also continued on an abstract trajectory from early on—namely, “light and space” exploration in painting formats (with others starting out in southern California c. 1970). Again, I don’t hesitate to use the term “majestic” in summarizing the flickering Minimalist planes she creates with micro-plastic bits blended into tarry black pigment and juxtaposed with silky, silvery acrylic in broad, flat bands. The very mechanics of seeing activates her surfaces, further impacted by viewer movement. Recent work by Leo Villareal and Veja Celmins came to mind while staring into Corso’s spatial “galaxies”—achieved with streamlined methods and means.
Likewise, the recent work of Suzan Frecon (David Zwirner) conveys long-term, discriminating devotion to abstract painting–hers employing a very subtle palette of earth tones and lightly, carefully biomorphicized geometry. She is most concerned with proportional relationships in terms of intuitive perception. However, landscapes are implicated (not to say “depicted”), as much by tonal mood as by mounds and horizontal passages. With a conceptual turn of intention and phrase, one could say the same of Maya Lin’s new sculptural installations (Pace), which translate rivers of the world from maps to glass marble arrangements and silver-pour creations crawling up the walls and pooling along the floor (along with a few other inspired material variations). Since her spectacular public debut decades ago (The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, design c. 1981), virtually nothing Lin has produced has not been well worth experiencing and engaging.
An anomaly in the art age of millennial Chelsea is the gorgeous, painted still life oeuvre of Janet Fish (DC Moore)–again an artist who has stuck with her early art impulses and affections. The selections here, spanning over thirty years, highlight Fish’s studious yet exuberant fascination and facility with reflections, contours, textures, and color in the observed real world. All manner and types of natural and artificial objects are reigned into loose, often spilled-over set-ups that Fish maintains as she paints, working exclusively from life. Collectible ceramics, kitsh tchokes, arm-to-table bounty, Chinese take-out, crispy potato chips, lush floral arrangements, poppy-pocked field flowers, and multiplying are glisten in jam-packed, vigorous compositions that fold in swiftly stroked patterned fabrics. It’s a palpable pleasure to revel in these prosaic reveries grounded in domestic life.
Titus Kaphar: Shifting Skies; at Jack Shainman (513 W. 20th; and 524 W. 24th) through January 28.
Kaphar had a breakthrough with his extensive painting series, The Jerome Project, 2014, in terms of public exposure, as well as artistic and socially committed aims. This group of portraits juggled and compressed deep personal motivations, hyper-realist painting style, Byzantine-golden grounds, the visual rhetoric of mugshots, and post-painterly abstraction; in each, the subjects are partly obscured by tarry blackness seeping up over the image field.
Around the same time, Kaphar was developing two other directions (according to his first [dual] exhibitions at Shainman; see post): one, steeped in revisionist history thematics sprung from past art images as catalysts and templates upon which to surface and flesh out the ostensibly invisible black presences outside–or erased from–these “frames”–joining, in this terrain, immediate predecessors and peers like Robert Colescott, Whitfield Lovell, and (fellow Yale alum) Kehinde Wiley. The other has been his direct engagement with and poetic documentation of Black Lives Matter from its beginnings, especially prominent images of the spontaneous hands-up-don’t-shoot solidarity gesture partly obscured by a maelstrom of ghostly brushwork. (One of these was published in Time, 12/10/14, in conjunction with the selection of BLM as collective runner up for Person of the Year).
The works on view in the current show further all three veins mentioned, variously. Individualistic portraiture remains prominent; notably in a series of intimate, sepia-toned images on raw canvases, and larger, Warholian off-register-photo-silkcreen-type images of (to most) anonymous, “shaken” individuals.
The torch of history is carried through in the clever, curt, crunched and jewel-toned Twisted Tropes, 2016;
Titus Kaphar; seen at Jack Shainman, 20th St. (Jan. 19, 2016)along with other distorted, ripped and re-organized pictures and planes throughout; with several silhouette-cut-out wood panels that move away from paint entirely. Elsewhere, more photo-based imagery vies with windy brushwork in soldier subjects–namely uniformed and armed (African American) Buffalo soldiers. Familiar visages of George Washington pop up throughout; including (I believe–or a similar colonial “father”) in squished-profile within an experimental glass series of amorphous-heads. I think many will agree the most compelling is in the form of an over-blown, tipped and corked canister with a bit of “brown juice” (both liquor and molasses are evoked) puddling at the bottom.
Overall, the works here are no less energetic for also conveying a slow and steady visual exploration of presence and absence simultaneously.
At the Brooklyn Museum, through September 18, 2016.
Disguise, organized by the Seattle Art Museum, reverberates well in Brooklyn, which boasts ever-expanding networks of transplanted African, as well as American-born and other artists of African descent, including several here. And that’s a delimitation–that is, all artists included are of African descent, some born and working in Africa, others not, on both counts, or some combination. So then “global African art” (of the exhibition title) is a provocative umbrella in more ways than one, especially in some cases. In addition, BM boasts a major collection of and commitment to traditional African art, culled from to contextualize the featured contemporary work.
In general, Western art audiences are a long way from MoMA’s infamous Primitivism (1984) when it comes to African art and aesthetics. A rising tide of African Diaspora arts in the West that, increasingly, has “looked both ways” within the scope of a growing global contemporary scene, offers firm foundation for the fluid curatorial approach here.* In New York, a small-scale recent precedent was The Met’s 2011 exhibition, Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents. Willie Cole, featured there, appears with a single work in Disguise, which was narrowed to focus on ten contemporary artists, supplemented with additions from another dozen (approximately) to suggest an expansive field of possibilities.
There is, throughout, a fundamental blurring of masking and disguise, as well as stated sub-themes that stem from the concept of “becoming.” Yet, ambiguity between the gathered notions seems apropos, when so much of past African masking traditions have been lost and their continuing evolution is infinitely complex.
Virtually all of the contemporary works are complex and engaging; and the traditional works are interspersed effectively. For example, a Yoruba pieced-textile egungun masquerade costume (Nigeria) and a Gola carved helmet mask and raffia ensemble (Liberia) are in proximity of a signature Nick Cave “soundsuit” and a costume-sculpture used in performance by Alejandro Guzman. Cave’s decades-long oeuvre, which includes performance-geared costume-works as well as mannequin-sculptures implying motion and sound such as the one here that sprouted a faux-botanical armature, has evoked the legacy of African masquerade from the start, although not directly; whereas Guzman’s towering, multi-horn-headed construction of natural, industrial, and found African-crafted elements does. Just running through a few, to give an idea of the visual energy:
Walter Oltmann‘s hobbit-sized, shiny steel “warriors” have a polished (I want to say “decorative”) manufacture from a distance; however, their real razor and barbed wire edges quickly turn them subversive. Two documentary photographers, Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou and Jean-Claude Moschetti, contribute gorgeous prints of ritual-ready, traditional egungun maskers, known for costumes (i.e., “masks”) with complete body coverage. Zino Saro-Wiwa provides unusually intimate photographic glimpses, particularly as a woman photographer, of a relatively recently established, kind of rogue masking society (an offshoot within the Ogboni) and an engrossing triptych video that challenges the overwhelmingly male gendering of traditional masquerade in a moving performance of a private mourning cycle. Wura-Natasha Ogunji directs female masqueraders in post-industrial hazmat-like apparel through the streets of Lagos, documented in cellphone videos. Saya Woolfalk fills a darkened gallery with psychedelic video-loop-and-light-based installations that evoke futuristic female fantasies of serene beauty inspired by Mende helmet masks, exceptional for their use by female societies. Compatriot futurist, Jacolby Satterwhite is represented with characteristic DIY sci-fi videos and a foray into digital painting. Interspecies origin myths and masking are conjoined in Nandipha Mntambo‘s striking photographic self-portrait with bovine ears and horns, also translated into a bronze bust, recalling the animal-headed humanoids of her teacher, Jane Alexander, as well as the prosthetic-enhanced creatures of Matthew Barney. A series of digital ink drawings by Brendan Fernandes also imagines cross-breeds—of animals and masks. Loved his obvious but effective African mask-shaped, blinking neon signs, partly inspired by a stint in NYC’s Chinatown; Jakob Dwight‘s mask-morphing, digital abstractions on monitors are a higher-tech version. Repros of African masks and figure paintings by Western “masters” are collaged by William Villalongo to conjure post-colonial takes on Dada and Surrealist precedents. Paul Anthony Smith amps up the latter in his photographic portrait of a Kuba-masked sitter embellished with “pricked” passages on the surface that appear simultaneously twinkling and furry. Edson Chagas, who received wide exposure in New York in Ocean of Images, the New Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (2015) is represented with a series of photo-portraits of a white-collar (literally) “manager” (loosely translated from the Greek series title, Oikonomos) with various mass-produced shopping and travel bags over his head.
The exhibition’s blend of vibrancy, erudition, and hodgepodge is compelling and will surely be of as much interest in retrospect (through the slim catalogue emphasizing artists’ statements), as it is in capturing a moment in the evolution of art related to African cultural origins through time and around the world.
*I’m thinking, of the exhibition/catalogue, Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora, ed. Laurie Ann Farrell; 2003.
“Barkley L. Hendricks”; at Jack Shainman (24th St.), through April 23:
Any time Barkley Hendricks (b. 1945) is in town–well, he’s earned a visit– explicitly on his own terms. Persevering with his steady Pop-Realist portraiture, he has contributed to “Black Arts” in the U.S. from the 1960s to the current Black Lives Matter movement. Of the former, we have been explicitly reminded by his iconic Lawdy Mama (1969, Brooklyn Museum of Art) popping up in the Lyon townhouse over two seasons of Empire; the latter, explicitly, with representations of the “hands-up” gesture in several works here.
Nurtured at PAFA and Yale, long bastions of realist technique and aesthetics, his m.o. is a poster-flat style spliced with crisp detail; likewise, he has stayed the course, as far as subject matter, throughout his ongoing, prolific career.
Hendricks’s 2008 retrospective, “The Birth of Cool” (organized by the Nasher Museum; exh. cat. Trevor Schoonmaker, et al.) solidified deserved wide-spread attention. A new context was much younger hotshots emerging since the new millennium, like Kehinde Wiley (post) and Titus Kaphur (post), who have picked up the figurative torch with similar intentions–namely, inserting real black presence into the mainstream white cube. In the display at Shainman it appears that, like many older artists who remain vital and relevant, Hendricks has now turned to them, collectively (i.e., two subsequent art generations), in terms of Black Life Matters, to keep moving forward.
The recent work here is generally tougher and more stark in its hard edge sensibility than that of his characteristic surface suave to this point. I must admit I was most drawn to a large-scale pink monochrome fashion-plate-type portrait evocative of his earlier, slightly silkier sartorial icons. But the activist enthusiasm of the rest equally left a strong impression.
“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.
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.
The large show, “A Constellation,” juxtaposes diverse postwar works by artists in the museum’s collection with those of artists exhibiting at the museum for the first time who expand in some way on themes and/or forms of the predecessors. Visually, it’s not always clear what is linked or why, as the curatorial/press statement concedes; the tentative, non-exclusive schemata is meant to be reflected in the exhibition title. More important, everything on display is engaging on an individual basis.
Best parts, for those of a certain art world age, are works that have become “classics” in living memory, including: a late, life-size carved wood mother-and-child sentinel by Elizabeth Catlett; a post-minimal grisaille painting experiment by Jack Whitten; a mid-1970s female-spirit-themed window construction by Betye Saar; Faith Ringgold’s quilt painting, Echoes of Harlem, 1980, a portrait-enhanced, patterned banner that initiated her subsequent signature medium; a shape-shifting, rusted “lynch fragment” by Mel Edwards from his decades-long series of small-scale, anamorphic metal wall sculptures; David Hammons’s 1995 Dada-ist African American piggy bank–which, cracked open, reveals a cache of cowrie shells (historical currency in many regions of Africa), and which he titles, Too Obvious; precisely–that’s the impact or coup of the absurdly unified conception. (Speaking of circuitous connections, I’ve always associated Too Obvious [it’s been periodically on view at SMH in recent years] with a print image by Hammons’s immediate predecessor, Charles Wright, titled Sounds of Silence, 1971 [litho., issued in color and black and white editions] which depicts, in a naturalistic style, a young Afro-crowned man with a large seashell in his belly.)
Of work among the younger artists that stuck with me: a Hugo McCloud rough-surfaced, vermilion-pigmented palimpsest abstraction trapping traces of of structural scaffolding in its layered–nominally connected to Whitten’s formal approach, but recalling more so the urban build-up of early Mark Bradford; and Aaron Fowler’s huge, Family, a large-scale, slightly chaotic mixed media wall tableau with titular signage slipping onto the floor.
The central component of the Fowler is a painted procession of variously costumed individuals set onto a backdrop of re-used wood planks and ornamented with small objects that suggest associative bridges between time and place, public and private. In Family viewers can glean aspects from virtually all of the elders represented in the show, along with Rauschenberg and Whitfield Lovell.
Beyond the literal monochrome and/or chiaroscuro of most of the work included, “Black: Color, Concept, Material” is nearly a smaller version of “Constellation” with its fluid cross-section of provocative selections, here all from the permanent collection. I was surprised the introductory text did not mention Raymond Saunders’s famous, seminal essay, “Black is a Color” (1967). Maybe I missed it somewhere, or, perhaps it may be considered something of a trope by now that need not dominate all related art conversations; yet, I would say that it is that important and (still) bears a lot of repeating. (The California-based octogenarian, Saunders, is currently having a solo show of that title at UC Santa Cruz; through Nov. 25; Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery).
Personal faves: Nari Ward’s metaphorically and materially resonant, transformative ironing board sculpture, in which the content-loaded object of domestic labor has been cloth-wrapped and thickly tarred and “feathered” (with cotton) into a kind of New World boli (the amorphous traditional power votive type of the Senufo, comprised partly of ancestral materials); Leonardo Drew’s chunky, rough-cut, black-painted abstract wood wall-leaning sculpture, recalling Louise Nevelson; Glenn Ligon’s glinty coal dust painting of obscured stenciled text; a sculptural self-portrait as nkisi (central African) or (related) vodun (Haitian) votive by Vanessa German.
‘Floating” (with the aid of clear fish-line) in the downstairs project space: a gallery-scale, undulating, “cloud” comprised of chair appendages (arms and legs) by Marc Andre Robinson. The artist’s pruning and cobbling of worn, discarded furniture into cultural expression aims to trace, in abstract art terms, the renowned double-identity thesis of W.E. B., Dubois. Formally and in relation to the missing but evoked bodies, there are affinities with several projects by Doris Salcedo; and, just formally, Nancy Rubins and Frank Stella.
Covered previously, also on view downstairs: Lorraine O’Grady’s art-politically pointed yet delightful early relational performance, “Art Is . . ., ” 1983, represented in photo-documentation (extended from a previous closing date).
Before Robert Colescott (1925-2009) was creating his satirical, caricature-like black folk (especially), white folk, and assorted, imaginary racially-mixed beings, there was Chicago-based painter, Motley (1891-1981), who took kaleidoscope color to all sorts of literal and metaphorical extremes in paint. His jaunty Bronzeville and Parisian street scenes, cafes, and billiard halls, which merge into broader thematic meditations on “modern” social life largely revolving around African American jazz, gain rhythmic momentum en masse. (Motley commented on occasion, as one label points out, that he didn’t feel his art had much to do with his Chi-town, per se.) And the ambiguous, much-discussed exaggeration of facial features that pops up across this extended urban subject matter remains emotionally and artistically provocative. It should be noted also, since Motley’s works generally reproduce well, that the delicate but deliberate facture perceived in a first-hand viewing adds a palpable warmth to much of the oeuvre.
The subtle anatomical distortions, along with a tendency towards slightly soft-edged and animated forms, comprise Motley’s signature brand of blended Regionalism and Social Realism, both prominent in America for the first half of the 20th century. Like other painters associated with these umbrella terms, his figuration shows consideration of late Cubist and other abstract, as well as Surrealist, directions. Especially the latter is suggested in a few experimental monochromatic works featuring dreamy pastel-ish environments and evaporating figures. (See Floor 2 of the permanent collection, which has a newly integrated [in several senses] installation of artists of the era that facilitates insights regarding their overlapping concerns and unique stylistic flourishes; e.g., Thomas Hart Benton, George Bellows, William Henry Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, among others).
Motley’s several portraits of his mother, his (white) wife, and those of a number of other women, emphasize age, class, and skin tone–the latter reiterated in some of their titles, which bear on mainstream (white; official) nomenclature of race in America into the postwar years. They can convey both distanced, ethnographic-type visual scrutiny and self-searching, empathetic poignancy. Two self-portraits done about a decade apart, one with a quirky array of objects and one of his nude paintings adding explicit iconography, are engaging for their carefully plotted presentation that both reveals and conceals something of the inner artist.
A late tour-de-force, the mnemonic, First One Hundred Years (1972) is a sudden, stark indictment of the violent and plodding pace of racial equality in the United States. This nightmarish faux-collage bulletin board of racism and resistance woven through a deep blues environment lingers long after leaving the exhibition and seems to answer lingering questions about Motley’s earlier artistic motives, life experience and intentions.