At the Studio Museum in Harlem; through March 6:
“A Constellation” /
“Black: Color, Concept, Material” /
“Marc Andre Robinson: Twice Told” /
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).