6.9.17 — More Than a Village

It takes a village or two. Simone Leigh has created one, fashioned after Zimbabwe “kitchen houses” of clay and thatch. And then she has dropped it into into Harlem—in the northeast corner of Marcus Garvey Park, where one can no more enter her three huts than the rockface behind them or the housing projects towering above. Two weekends now after Memorial Day and (finally) warming up, are you getting out and around the city for a long walk? Start there, and then let me show you around!

An artist who has made shower curtains into undershorts, herbal medicines into a poor excuse for political activism (at The New Museum this past fall, through September 18), and a woman’s back or cowrie shells into obscure objects of desire, Simone Leigh's a particularly elaborate imba yokubikira locked up while its owners live in diaspora (Studio Museum in Harlem, 2016)Leigh speaks of her village as “locked up while its owners live in diaspora.” They could, though, find shelter in the trees overhead or the locker rooms, public pool, and recreation center also in the park nearby. They will have come a long way, and they may have already found a home.

inHarlem” gives a high-tech label to a low-tech walk through the community, organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem through July 25. It extends from Madison Avenue to Morningside Drive to the west—and then another two miles to the north. It invites four artists to mark their own green space, one to a park. And it sees their surroundings as a place to live and to play, even as gentrification brings its displacements. As I entered Morningside Park, a white sunbather lay oblivious to passing eyes, in what once served as formidable wall between Columbia University and a neighborhood at risk. Now the show’s very title invites one in—and, together with an earlier report on a prominent black sculptor, Richard Hunt, it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Not that the artists are unaware of racism, displacement, and danger. Rudy Shepherd has documented the Superdome as a site of displaced persons after a disaster, and Kori Newkirk has displayed a shopping cart, in “Blues for Smoke” at the Whitney Museum, as an emblem of life on the streets. Here, though, Shepherd marks the north end of the walk in Jackie Robinson Park with a “negative energy absorber.” Black Rock, actually concrete over wood and metal, takes its shape from Manhattan bedrock. It means in turn “to dispel people’s feelings of racial prejudice, violence, or ordinary disdain by opening them to more compassionate aspects of their personalities.” And Newkirk imagines St. Nicholas Park, itself a half-mile rock wall, as “the site for a ceremonial procession.”

Well, O.K,, and Shepherd sees Harlem more through the eyes of Henry Moore than of its residents. As for Newkirk, maybe Sentra sounds more like a Nissan model, but it does, he swears, denote “sexy creative energy.” Still, anything would look good just past another public pool, and Newkirk knows a thing or two about reaching out. In “The Bearden Project,” at the Studio Museum in homage to Romare Bearden, he turned paint cans into a game of telephone. In his own show, six years after his appearance there as an emerging artist, his marks of post-black identity included human hair and beaded curtains. Here reflective strips hanging from goalposts create curtains visible from across the street.

inHarlem” turns to artists familiar from past shows, which is O.K., too. As curator, Amanda Hunt is bridging the museum and the community. Kevin Beasley appeared in “Fore,” the museum’s 2013 survey of emerging artists and, like Leigh, as an artist in residence. There he left his mark in stained and folded surfaces. Later, a 2014 show on the American South, he simply amplified the surrounding silence. Now he combines the two by framing a field in Morningside Park with three “acoustic mirrors”—like satellite dishes steeped in torn t-shirts and paint.

The shirts have lost their identity, but the dishes have not altogether lost their sound. Beasley calls them Who’s Afraid to Listen to Red, Black, and Green and chooses their colors from the African American flag. The title also echoes Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue by Barnett Newman, the Abstract Expressionist—because Harlem is also part of New York, and it covers a lot of ground. The installation takes considerable hunting out, and the museum provides few clues. (For what it is worth, Beasley claims the park’s southwest corner, atop the 114th Street stairs.) It takes more than a village: it takes art and the city.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.27.17 — Uneasy Riders

It is never easy to get to Kennedy Airport—and never easy to deal with security if you are an African American. Next time, you might consider instead traveling by horseback.

Believe it or not, the Federation of Black Cowboys occupies wind-swept stables off Howard Beach. Cattle driving while black? Founded to promote knowledge of “the black West,” the federation could hardly have made its home further east. Designed to give its members the autonomy and authority they deserve, it may end up leaving them to white eyes as invisible men.

Ron Tarver's A Ride by North Philly Rows (Studio Museum in Harlem, 1993)Yet they are visible, in photographs by Brad Trent—and in “Black Cowboy,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 5—and I have appended this to an earlier report on Kerry James Marshall for a longer review and my latest upload. The show may sound like a bad joke or a provocation, and its photos and videos share a wry sense of humor and a true grit. They are not, though, just one-liners. Forget Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles or the Marlborough Man for Richard Prince. These artists have little interest in popular culture or appropriation. They may not recover much in the way of history either, but they do tackle the stubborn image problem of the black male.

Wall text refers to the old West and to “buffalo soldiers” in and after the Civil War. All six artists, though, stick to the present. Deanna Lawson comes closest to myth making, with her solitary figure on horseback—but as part of her intimate portraits of what she likes to call her family. And Ron Tarver comes closest to comedy in North Philadelphia, where a rider passes beneath a billboard image of Malcolm X and leaves his horse at a playground to indulge in a slam dunk. The rest, though, document actual troops and events. Like Tarver, they also play a cowboy’s ideal of freedom against the reality of black America.

Upstairs, the Studio Museum celebrates its collection with a modest look at its first full decade. It takes one back as well to a time before Modernism lost its authority, but also before African American art gained its measure of recognition, assuming it ever has. “Circa 1970” has abstractions by Normal Lewis, Jack Whitten, Al Loving, McArthur Binion, Robert Blackburn, and Sam Gilliam. It also has a body print by David Hammons, a sweeping but empty cape in bronze by Barbara Chase-Riboud, a crucifix by Betye Saar, an effigy in nylons by Senga Nengudi, and a painting of “trash” by Benny Andrews. The mezzanine sticks to politics in the present, with “The Window and the Breaking of the Window”—after a descriptor of black people in text art by William Pope.L. It cannot, though, match the anger and despair of simply reading the news.

The smaller show downstairs, just outside the gallery recently for sculpture by Richard Hunt (and now on the theme of text art), does more to keep one guessing about black and white. Yes, the Federation on Howard Beach is real, as is the nasty swagger of its riders. Trent discovered them thanks to The Village Voice and photographed them with an eye to Richard Avedon and In the American West. Just as real is the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, in South Philly. Mohamed Bourouissa sets his two-channel video in front of posters for the club, which aspires to guide children through urban decay along with horses. He takes nothing away from his subjects, but also nothing away from the incongruity.

The irony only increases in Louisiana, where prisoners from Angola perform their annual rodeo in photos by Chandra McCormick. They can master roping, but not half so much as the system that will return them to maximum security. Most unexpected of all, a black community has its place and its horsemanship in Wildcat, Oklahoma. In a film by Kahlil Joseph, the rodeo descends in slow motion into darkness and specks of artificial light. Bourouissa says that he had thought cowboys were white, like John Wayne. Here they are thoroughly black, but one can barely make out their pride or their color.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.