“Freestyle”: 28 Emerging, Largely Unknown Black Artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


"‘Authenticity,’"
Henry Louis Gates wrote somewhat ruefully in his book Thirteen Ways of Looking
at a Black Man
, "is among the founding lies of the modern age."
A painfully realistic, partially muffled wake-up call for black artists after
decades of political activism in the arts, Gates’ statement provided a late
rejoinder to the uncompromising engagé stance of writers like Amiri
Baraka: "A writer must have a point of view, or he cannot be a good writer.
He must be standing somewhere in the world, or else he is not one of us."

Laboring
under the weight of what James Baldwin called "the burden of representation,"
black artists have long felt forced to satisfy two separate, seemingly antithetical
communities: America’s black population and its largely white art establishment.
In the 1970s and 80s certain strategic, ideologically driven responses were developed
to confront the increasingly spiny problem of race and representation–none
particularly liberating for those artists who preferred carving out their own
paths to communal efforts at negotiating the treacherous thicket of postmodern
cultural politics.

As
the nationalist dogma of the Black Arts Movement dovetailed with the American-style
multiculturalism and anti-estheticism of the 1980s and early 90s, a group of highly
original black artists emerged from the crucible of representation, among them
Michael Ray Charles, Ellen Gallagher, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker.
Accused of "self-hate" and creating "negative black images"
by artistic elders like Faith Ringgold and Beyte Saar, these artists found philosophical
protection and institutional endorsement in the work of then-Whitney Museum curator
Thelma Golden.

Golden–responsible
at the Whitney for a retrospective of the work of Bob Thompson, the controversial
"Black Male" exhibition and (along with Elisabeth Sussman) the woodenly
political 1993 Biennial–championed artists like Walker, who in her words
fled "the Black History Month exhibitions, the racial uplift esthetic, and
a segregated art world" as well as "the old, tired stereotyped roles
of the Good Negress and the African-American artist." Golden sought to update,
even radicalize, the visual and thematic arsenal of black artists. Partly successful
in her efforts to reinvent "the debate on culture and identity in contemporary
art," the curator has recently turned her attention to a younger, emerging
generation of black artists.

"Freestyle"
is Golden’s first exhibition in her new post as curator of the venerable
and underacknowledged Studio Museum in Harlem. It brings together the work of
28 emerging, largely unknown black artists in media as varied as hair pomade and
computer art. Forward-looking and experimental, "Freestyle" owes much
of its brio to the youthfulness of its artists. Its historically anticipatory
character, on the other hand, is largely attributable to the clear-eyed cultural
reconnaissance of the team made up by Golden and her assistant and collaborator
Christine Y. Kim.

"Freestyle,"
characterized by Golden as "post-multicultural, post-identity, post-conceptual
and post-black," turns out to be more successful as a curatorial tonic to
stubborn, obsolete art strategies like anti-formalist identity art than as an
exhibition of a fully formed generation of young black artists. Wonderfully energetic
in places, as improvisational as its title suggests, generous in spirit and highly
intelligent in conception, the show nevertheless promises more than it delivers.
Rather than a new artistic generation to follow that of Walker and Charles we
get a group of disparate artists trying on a compendium of styles; instead of
the fabulous work of black artists from the late 90s, "Freestyle" presents
too much work by artists who, on the merits, do not belong in a museum survey
like this one.

The
exhibition is made up of 11 women and 17 men hailing mostly from the East and
West Coasts, and treads over a great deal of familiar artistic territory, providing
just enough surprises to keep one interested. Among the highlights–which
make up just over a third of the work in the show by my generous count–is
the work of New York artist Rico Gatson. Eight pixilated photographs of fire hung
at the entrance to the museum hint mutely at the incendiary nature of race in
America: its treatment, however innocent, can always turn flammable. Kori Newkirk,
a gifted artist from Los Angeles, presents handsome nocturnes done in plastic
hair beads and a large wall painting of a police helicopter made from hair pomade.
(In L.A., the wall text informs the reader, the flying machines are fittingly
called "ghetto birds.")

In
the painting department, some artists provoke and disappoint by turns. There’s
Kojo Griffin’s charcoal drawings of gun-toting bears, simpler and more effective
by far than his varnished, patterned canvases of similar subjects; the engaging
but modest, violent comic strip figures of Laylah Ali; and a revisitation of 50s-style
formalist abstraction by the Midwesterner Jerald Ieans, confected with laudable
autodidacticism ("I just paint what I feel," he says in the exhibition
catalog) but most successful in the hot-pink, product-colored painting that drops
the dreary Clifford Still palette. Deborah Grant, the best painter on display,
presents jumbled, arresting, newsprint-like accumulations of text and image: one
canvas, Verdicts, includes the juxtaposed portraits of Jean Genet and a
pickanniny plus a key question–"Who bought the myth?"

As
regards the moving image, three artists stand out. Susan Smith-Pinelo’s video
Sometimes has the artist bouncing a jewel-encrusted "Ghetto"
necklace atop her D-cup cleavage to the tune of Michael Jackson’s hit single
"Working Day and Night." Tana Hargest’s biting CD-ROM installation
presents programming from BNBN, the broadcast network division of the fictional
holding company Bitter Nigger Inc., producers of the equally fictional "Tominex,"
the drug that helps you "Go-Along-To-Get-Along." And then there is the
video work of Sanford Biggers: the soundless, single-channel work a small world…
juxtaposes found 8 mm footage from Biggers’ own childhood with that of a
white artist, Jennifer Zackin, resulting in a nostalgia-filled, bittersweet family
film equivalent of the segregation found in high school cafeterias across America.

Biggers
also contributes a solid sculptural piece to the show. Mandala of Corruption
features five cast resin Buddhas spinning atop mirrored platforms. As a kicker,
each Buddha is found to contain the accouterments of exploited and exploiting
black popular culture: there’s the hiphop mic, a shiny necklace with a medallion
in the shape of Africa, the bright colored laces of a pair of high-top basketball
sneakers. Eric Wesley, perhaps the most promising artist in "Freestyle,"
provides a kicker of his own. A lifesize, mechanical donkey called Kicking
Ass
, his sculpture kicks holes right through the museum walls. Another piece
by Wesley, Mall, brilliantly replicates in paper both everyday consumer
objects like books, beer cans and pizza boxes and, en ensemble, a Frank
Gehry-style architectural construction.

Unfortunately,
besides these acknowledged gems, "Freestyle" also contains inexplicably
dull photographs of trite everyday and art world subjects such as homelessness
and "the flaneur"; virtually unreadable documentation of Robert Irwin-inspired
light and space experiments; mediocre grid paintings recalling Agnes Martin; and
a slapdash, old-style identity politics number, featuring tiny acrylic figures
on long-distance phone bills that purportedly suggest both "issues of cultural
identity formation and post-colonial globalization" and "a Marxist critique
of international market time." "Post-black is the new black," Golden
says, unwittingly paraphrasing the involuted sloganeering of the British arts
duo Bob and Roberta Smith. If "Freestyle" is any indication, this future-minded
curator may want to entertain the idea that she is more genuinely radical than
many of her selected artists.

"Freestyle,"
through June 24 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 W. 125th St. (betw. A.C. Powell
Jr. & Malcolm X. Blvds.), 864-4500.

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