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.