Black Like Who?

John Haber
in New York City

Scratch and Frequency

Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed that his "children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." In that nation today, can one look at an African American artist and see an artist rather than an African American? Will Americans ever judge black artists by the character of their content? Oh, and who gave me the right to ask?

At the Studio Museum in Harlem, two fine shows give the questions a provocative twist. They demand that one already see the art and not the stereotypes. However, in the content of African American art, character, and experience, they insist nonetheless on a heritage of race in America. "Scratch" concentrates on three artists in residence. "Frequency" offers a richer and thoroughly entertaining survey of emerging artists, the museum's first in four years. Hank Willis Thomas's Winter in America (Studio Museum in Harlem, 2005)

Together, they show artists not so much defying as playing with expectations and turning them against stereotype. In other words, they allow artists to dream. It is, after all, what they do—only theirs have a way of running out of control. Before you drift off yourself, however, the smaller show will introduce the issues.

Scratching the surface

One uses fine gold leaf and a photo of Elvis. One draws on early Frank Stella and the restraint of Shaker furniture—which, ironically, influenced the intense activity in abstraction by Gianna Commito. One shapes old chairs into a throne fit for a rain king and patterns a wall in white and gold. Can such artists represent blackness? As director of the Studio Museum, Thelma Golden has consistently challenged my right to ask that question. She does so again twice in one year, first with three artists in residence.

One can see her curatorial work as a demand—that one accord black artists the same respect and freedom as others. One can see it as a challenge to stereotypes, but by refusing them rather than confronting them, as she had at the Whitney more than ten years ago with "The Black Male." One can also see it as acknowledging that issues of identity and culture do not simply go away, but rather people need art to examine them and to participate in shaping them afresh. "Freestyle," her first group show there, declared the goal of presenting a full range of contemporary art by emerging African Americans, rather than simply as or about them. Later, a show of Gary Simmons presented an ambitious draftsman. Simmons's wall drawings played quite literally with blackness and self-effacement, and each artist in "Scratch," too, makes more concrete and bitter allusions than at first appears.

William Cordova, who came to America from Peru, can fairly confront Memories of Overdevelopment. Against the background of gold leaf, he draws two stacks of LPs, like street lamps at an intersection, with a wire slung across. Instead of the usual old sneakers, however, the wire sags under a load of boom boxes and other remnants of urban living. Cordova's more casual sketches may not look like much, but their scope—one hundred in all—and the muted echoes of graffiti and Jean-Michel Basquiat may well justify the title World Famo Paintings. When Cordova lets his pencil loop freely until it darkens a sheet of paper, he takes one back to Simmons as well. A few photographic diptychs, such as that with Elvis, are similarly knowing in their ambivalently black and white role models.

Michael Queenland finds a deep-seated idealism in an earlier America, in Modernism, and in the turmoil of the last decades alike, and he wonders and fears where their appeal has left him. He props his comically oversized Shaker assemblages, in the dreariest of white paint, unsteadily off the wall. The Stella, flipped ninety degrees, fits in a collage along with documentation of a "terror cult." Other objects and photographs record the litter of a "cult compound," including empty liquor bottles. Must black self-assertion require a sectarian idealism as well, in a refusal of white America, or do America's roots grow from black and white alike? Do liquor bottles suggest stereotypes of African American male failure or the violence that has fed on racism? Queenland's esthetic restraint and clear admiration for his subject matter leave the question mark firmly in place.

Besides traces of the past, mutilation, and simply drawing, the somewhat lame catch-all "Scratch" alludes to a D.J.'s practice, much like Cordova's LPs. Marc André Robinson's grandly scaled throne has one part the elegance of bent wood, one part appropriation, and one part just a pile a trash, but it belongs, the work's title insists, to a rapper. A video overlays the cheers at an arena concert with a speech by, I believe, Malcolm X. Whose cries have let black America down? The art refuses to turn that question into a convenient lecture.

All three artists have high aspirations and modest work, but of course "Scratch" can only scratch the surface of emerging art—and its successors, such as "Usable Pasts" in 2010, "Evidence of Accumulation" in 2011, "Material Histories" in 2014, "Everything, Everyday" in 2015, and "Tenses" in 2016 can do only so much as well. "Frequency" asks for more. If Golden pulled off her most inviting and least muddled show to date with just three men, a show with thirty-five contributors, almost all under thirty-five, all but begs for more of a muddle, like the hopes of a "generational" in each New Museum triennial. Fortunately, it takes exactly that to show the real vitality of the Studio Museum's approach to blackness. Let me trace that approach to the very start of Golden's tenure.

Frequent flyers

Has my dream already arrived? The Studio Museum has also presented black abstract artists as a vital tradition, as well as black conceptual art. Just this year, I fell in love with wall drawings by Julie Mehretu without once remembering her skin color—at least until a museum reminded me. In the Whitney's "Remote Viewing," they offered a model for abstraction that can blur the lines between a drawing's own formal architecture and a museum installation's real one. Perhaps I should have recognized that for her an artist's map of America necessarily has a special history.

Mehretu in fact appeared in the Studio Museum's previous survey of emerging artists, in 2001, along with Rashid Johnson and others. So did Laylah Ali, and to have even a few artists become stars counts, no doubt, as quite a success. No wonder the Studio Museum tactfully corrects those who would call "Frequency," its new show, "Freestyle II." Think of the old rhetorical trick: "I will not call my opponent a liar and unpatriotic, but . . . ." In practice, the museum must welcome the association, especially in the minds of critics who so rarely take the subway uptown.

Now, "Frequency" does differ from its predecessor. It has less consistency but also more variety and yet more overt references to race. If the title "Freestyle" announces a new freedom, perhaps "Frequency" suggests the inevitability of a recurring dream—or nightmare. That makes it a more interesting show for all its flaws, as well as even truer to the vision of its curators, Golden and Christine Y. Kim. Its reality-based dreaming could also serve as a gentle corrective to the more inner-directed "Greater New York," recently at P.S. 1, or the upcoming 2006 Biennial, with its preference for Europe over Harlem.

First impressions matter here, and my first impression fulfilled the dream again. This does not look like black art, at least if one means art of the museums. Unlike the linear collage narratives of Jacob Lawrence, the faded assemblage by Leslie Hewitt disperses memory in every direction, from family albums to the mass media. Hewitt incorporates everything from snapshots and diplomas to Ebony magazine. Instead of elephant poop, Mike Cloud uses still more layered photographs to evoke African ceremonies. Mickalene Thomas may come closest to emulating Romare Bearden, as she does in "The Bearden Project" on his centenary, but with a lot more glitter and more than a hint of sex.

When the artists do take on art history, they feel entitled to the same history as anyone else. Jeff Sonhouse's Cardinal appropriates a familiar Diego Velázquez portrait—and, by extension, Francis Bacon—for a powerful community leader. Ziomara De Oliver's Bombshell Girls echoes World War II pinups, Henri Rousseau, and Henry Darger. She can thus speak simultaneously to black female sexuality, black male sexism, white equations of blackness and the primitive, and her own visual poetry besides. A plinth by Shinique Smith looks much like recent work by John Chamberlain and suitably "Unmonumental," except that she binds together a pile of discarded clothing rather than industrial debris, replacing Chamberlain's shock and joy with nurturing and sadness. Other traditional styles and media include Robert A. Pruitt's work in Conté crayon, costumes by Nick Cave, Karyn Olivier's Minimalist seesaw Doubles, and Xaviera Simmons's striking photograph of a woman along in a cornfield.

The artists dive right into allegedly white culture, too. To suggest the gaps in ordinary American history, William Villalong poses a shrunken statue of General Robert E. Lee. Michael Queenland's investigations of life on the margins and of radicalism return, but with text from the Unabomber and images from A Beautiful Mind. Michael Paul Britto's video of black history stars Dirty Harriet Tubman, with a fake movie poster right out of the 1940s to accompany it. One may recall the urban populations that Dirty Harry chose to hate, perhaps those down in the subways with Lorna Simpson.

Growing up fast

The show may not settle for ready-made notions of black identity, but clearly it has its way of cycling back to black experience. The run-on sentences of Adam Pendleton might pass for any number of word paintings, including those by Jenny Holzer or Christopher Wool. However, the message about race riots adds its own conflicting, anonymous voices, and the grammar suggests a jazz riff for art. Sedrick Huckaby's A Love Supreme (Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 2001–2003)Jazz also informs A Love Supreme, Sedrick E. Huckaby's trompe-l'oeil mural of colored fabric, in oil on canvas. It makes me think of everything from abstract painting and Sam Gilliam, the noted African American painter, to Southern rural quilting and the homeless on the streets of Manhattan.

A connection between music and danger may recall Robinson's video in "Scratch," and Jina Valentine even calls a collection of LP sleeves Appetite for Destruction. Like Robinson's video, some of the best work looks to the toll of poverty and racism in destructive behavior within the black community. Before Dirty Harriet can get going, another woman must refuse the Lord's call to freedom. In an astounding video by Hank Willis Thomas, Winter in America, toy plastic figures act out a tragic playground ritual, like a West Side Story for the video-game era and with whites now above the conflict. Hints of violence also appear on the flesh and cotton briefs in photographs by Demetrius Oliver.

These works do not point fingers, and they do not lose their sense of humor. Neither does Zöe Charlton, whose drawings on vellum would work quite effectively as soft-core porn, except for hoods out of the Ku Klux Klan or Abu-Gahraib. Roberto Visani's cardboard limbs stacked in the trash improve on the wit and similar allegories of Philip Guston. Latex painting by Rodney McMillian spills onto the floor, as if to say that one can no longer trust art to know its place.

In a sense, "Frequency" means how much has changed for black artists and Harlem—and also how little. It reminds me of photographs of Harlem that ran alongside "Scratch," from Aaron Siskind, the earnest outsider of the 1930s, to Dawoud Bey in 1979 and beyond. Each pays respect to an appealing vitality and an appalling inequality. Recently here, too, the neighborhood starts to talk back and to look more critically at itself as well. The faces and the pace of activity apologize to no one. Albert Veçerka's large color print of brownstones looks even more fabulous—and its residents more powerless than ever. Damali Ayo has no qualms about representing a call for reparations but calling his subject a panhandler.

Dollar signs may get the last word anyhow, perhaps another indication of how difficult it has become to define African American identity. Among those photos, Hunter Tura and Jeannie Kim superpose them on rather splendid Harlem interiors, along with the question of who can possibly afford them. Even in "Frequency," before men for Jonathan Calm get around to much else, they will have to stop obsessing over scratch-off lottery cards. However, here as elsewhere, "Frequency" says so much about emerging art because it reconnects the personal to the political. In the first manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton wrote that "it is perhaps the dream that makes me grow old." These artists are already dreaming and maturing.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Scratch" and photographs of Harlem ran at the Studio Museum in Harlem through October 23, 2005, "Frequency" through March 12, 2006. Related reviews looked at its other surveys of emerging art—"Freestyle," "Flow," "Fore," and "Fictions."


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME