12.27.17 — Fact and Fiction

If orange is the new black, where does that leave you if you are black? You may have no choice.

Sherrill Roland spent sixteen months in jail for a crime that he did not commit. Back in grad school, where he did have a choice, wearing orange became a testimony to black lives, not least his own. His performance also appears in “Fictions,” the fifth in the occasional shows of emerging artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem, through January 7. It coincides as well with the artists in residence in “We Go as They.”

One might not wish to put too much weight on a fiction. “Fictions” comes after shows of “Freestyle,” “Frequency,” “Flow,” and “Fore” as just one more F-word. The title notwithstanding, fact and fiction become hard to disentangle. One need not even put too much weight on a roundup of emerging artists, in competition with MoMA PS1, the New Museum triennial, and more. One has to welcome, though, a show willing to stick to just nineteen artists—from a museum that cares about emerging talent and African American art. From its opening wall text, it lays claim to a given for both fact and fiction, a context in culture, place, and history.

In practice, fact intrudes on fiction and the treachery of memory on fact. In practice, too, context gives way to displacement, just as Roland kept returning to a life apart from what he knew as his own. Sable Elyse Smith spent time in prison, too, for 7667 Nights–Falling and 7667 Days. That translates to twenty-one years of undesired culture, place, and history, as seen in Polaroids isolated against black suede. For accompaniment, Nikita Gale wraps a guitar in towels. Political art is supposed to provide feedback, but not that kind.

Art here seems more than a little lost. It can leave one as high and dry as animal skulls on clear plastic shelves and benches, by Matthew Angelo Harrison. It can leave one as fighting mad as female boxers and sleepwalkers on video, by Deborah Roberts. It can leave the subjects of a painting just out of reach in the lush colors of an unspecified great outdoors, by Walter Price. Patrick Martinez sees LA through neon trees and artificial flowers. Landscape becomes more encompassing but stranger still for Allison Janae Hamilton, in a room of birch trees, animal heads, bird calls, and projected eyes dancing across projected waters.

Installation cannot guarantee a sense of place, not even when Roland tapes an orange rectangle to the floor. It entraps visitors in the boundaries of his performance, but with a device that museums more often use to keep visitors at a distance. Maya Stovall displaces the visitor, too. One can view glass shards and mason jars that she scavenged in Detroit—or just oneself on a bench, between two mirrors. Krista Clark leaves her studio empty on moving day, while Genevieve Gaignard leaves a living room uninhabited except for a porcelain Aunt Jemima in a bird cage and an empty chair. A sickly green clock does, though, tell the right time.

In portraiture, Amy Sherald and Devan Shimoyama adopt the glitter that serves Mickalene Thomas or Kehinde Wiley as a token of glamour. Yet they have a thoroughly mundane, humane, and individual subject matter—and, at times, only eyelids or ceramic flowers in place of eyes. Christina Quarles is more painterly, but just whose hand is whose? For Paul Stephen Benjamin, Lil Wayne and Aretha Franklin perform “God Bless America” as the counterpoint of incantation and soul. Nearly fifty monitors allow black America its triumph, but in a virtual sea of colored ghosts. Texas Isaiah calls his shadowy photos My Name Is My Name, and that conclusion will have to do.

Among the 2017 artists in residence, Julia Phillips makes the museum the setting of a dangerous experiment, with sculpture that could pass for broken shields, instruments of torture, or chastity belts. Andy Roberts has a more reassuring context. His Nocturnes have their setting in Harlem and their style, like their title, an allusion to James McNeill Whistler. When Autumn Knight promotes cockroach milk on video, warnings about side effects mention systemic racism, but he, too, lives halfway comfortably between fact and fiction. When a woman’s hand moves across a wall, it displaces paint, but her heels move gracefully across the peelings on the floor. Harlem appears through a haze of soap bubbles, but with a persistent motion that may yet outlast this year’s culture and history.

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