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


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"'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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