320 East 43rd Street, through August 17, 2019
If you’ve never been to the landmark 1960s building of the Ford Foundation for Social Justice, which has had an extensive public plaza-like space open to the public from the beginning, the new gallery and its programming (established 2018 in a building overhaul; this is the second exhibition) is even more reason to get going. Exhibitions focuses loosely issues and circumstances related to the Foundation’s mission, whether and both who the artists are. Here the thematic title reins in global artists dealing more and less with injustice, personal obstacles, wrapped up with self-love, communal celebration, and most often post-colonial, Diaspora, and transnational identities and social issues.
An innovative feature of the building is its tiered indoor tropical garden (above), the site of a sound piece (part of the show) by Umani Uzuri, which incorporates the spiritual, “Wade on the Water” to invoke a “hush arbor,” or hiding place for escaped slaves in the antebellum South. On the second floor in the gallery proper a large entrance wall accommodates a kind of memorial to the protestors arrested in the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, in which their individual photos have been developed on transparent silk and superimposed onto painted portraits for a ghostly stereoscopic effect. A trio of figurative textile sculptures from the late 1970s by the still prolific Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) are as political as they are personal in their feminist form and subjects. Most other works share some sort of visual dazzle through a riot of color, patterning, and textures.
A tin-foil-glittery, kitsch-Baroque, paper-mache rat-infested, gay-urban altarpiece by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, who started with this sort of thing c. 40 years ago, is impressive for its obsessive dedication to scrappy, inventive craft. His semiotic linking of superficial sparkle with queerness as well as spirituality is seen elsewhere here; while others use glittery effects to other associative ends. Ebony Patterson’s hanging, sequin-dotted patchwork tapestry, in which images of body parts peak through in sections, includes gold-painted conch shells and coins strewn below to reinforce the Caribbean context of her dreamy-nightmare aesthetic. Rashaad Newsome’s kaleidoscope-like photo-collages of glam-bling adornments on impossible bodies deals partly in drag ball fantasy, picked up in Athi-Patra Ruga’s staged portrait photos. Weedy growths sprouting from high on several walls are tangled with bits of shiny detritus in an installation by Lina Puerta. Raul de Nieves’s opulently costumed mannequins representing two aspects of his mother recall Egungun masks (which completely cover dancers in the Nigerian masquerade traditions) and Nick Cave’s “soundsuits.” A gold-ornamented painted female portrait by Lina Iris Viktor includes a backdrop map melding Africa with sites of its Diaspora. An especially moving assemblage sculpture by Vanessa German depicts a “white-face” Madonna / nkisi (power figure in traditional groups of the Congos) cradling a black baby doll, with silver-beaded strands of tears. Probably the most arresting and eye-opening work for most viewers will be Sue Austin’s video of her underwater experience in a wheelchair specially equipped for the event. More than a half-dozen other works included are similarly engaging; and a bonus on my visit were publicly accessible works beyond the exhibit by Kehinde Wiley and Hank Willis Thomas (look down the hallways to and from the elevators).