by David M. Roth
In a scramble to award long-overdue recognition to Black artists, galleries and museums over the past few years have at times appeared to be tripping over their shoelaces in an attempt to correct historical wrongs. The upside for Black artists is that doors once closed have now been thrown wide-open, ushering in what feels like a renaissance, akin to what we saw in the 1960s when the British Invasion prompted an upsurge of interest in Black music, showing white Americans, many for the first time, their own cultural heritage.
In the art world, powerful evidence of a similar trend comes not from exhibitions organized by big museums but from individuals like Bernard Lumpkin and Carmine Boccuzzi, collectors, whose family treasures are now on tour in an exhibition called Young Gifted and Black: A New Generation of Artists, on view through December 19 at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art in Davis.
It’s one of several university-run galleries and museums at which this ultra-sharp, intergenerational exhibition will touch down — a fact that points to just how different Lumpkin and Boccuzzi’s ambitions are from those of most collectors. Rather than amass objects for their own edification and viewing pleasure, the New York-based couple have, over the past 20 years, positioned themselves at the center of a fast-evolving ecosystem that connects them –and the artists they support — to every important node of the artworld, the idea being that, to thrive, Black artists need long-term institutional support backed by vigorous and sustained educational outreach efforts. That is why the show landed at UC Davis and not a more obvious venue like the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco. In keeping with that mission, the exhibition includes a sumptuous catalog, an equally extravagant website and a comfy reading room chock-full of titles that serve as a crash course in the history of contemporary Black art.
Co-curated by Antwaun Sargent and Matt Wycoff and overseen at the Manetti Shrem by Susie Kantor, the museum’s director of exhibitions, Young Gifted and Black takes its title from the 1968 stage play of the same name by Robert Nemeroff, based on the autobiographical writings of his wife, Lorraine Hansberry, author of the groundbreaking play, Raisin in the Sun. The show, dominated by painting, contains 52 works by nearly 50 artists, most of them rising stars. It’s partitioned – loosely — into four thematic groupings: “Color,” “Black,” “Materiality” and “Portraiture,” each prefaced by works from older artists (Mickalene Thomas, David Hammons, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, Glen Ligon, Henry Taylor) strategically placed to indicate the passing of the art-historical torch.
From the outset, the content of each section overlaps and blurs, recalling what W. E. B. Dubois in 1903 called “double consciousness,” a term meant to denote how Black people reflexively toggle between their own self-images and those imposed on them by whites. In the 21st century, that proposition became even trickier with the overlay of multiple racial and sexual identities. To illustrate, “Color” displays a suite of garish, spatially ambiguous, anatomically skewed “portraits,” including several by artists who publicly identify as queer. Each, in their way, suggests how the struggle for self-definition plays out.
Jordan Casteel’s Kenny, a painting of a middle-aged drummer whose intensity recalls Alice Neel’s portraits, shows its muscular subject staring out from behind a drum kit. There’s nothing remarkable in that. But if you look closely at the margins, you’ll see some strange things: a parrot standing inside a kick drum and a figure falling through space inside a window just behind the drummer’s left shoulder. Move through the room and things get stranger, nowhere more so than in Caitlin Cherry’s Ghost Leviathan, a painting of a woman as a whale floating in a near-psychedelic sea of florid brushstrokes, her buttocks and feet protruding above the surface like buoyant rainbows. It’s a primordial fantasy, to be sure, but one that also carries dark overtones, signaled by the hyper-sexualized pose and the outsized lips, both vestiges of racist caricatures. Likewise, the tangle of bodies in Cristina Quarles’ painting, Now Top That, proves just as difficult to parse, as does the fractured pictorial space in which Jonathan Lyndon Chase situates an image of his face above an amalgamation of body parts, all of which, I imagine, are intended to represent disparate aspects of an identity constructed under duress. Jennifer Packer’s stunning untitled portrait of a seated figure, defined by paint splotches set against a large white halo, further extends the notion of dematerialized bodies standing in for malleable psychological states.
These and other works in Young Gifted and Black collectively call to mind Ralph Ellison’s line: “I am invisible…simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”
The section titled “Black” addresses that issue directly, forming the exhibition’s conceptual backbone. Glen Ligon kicks it off with the appropriately titled Study for Impediment, an oil stick and coal dust drawing that spells out the word “slur” in repeating letters as if spoken with an excruciatingly slow stutter. After that, the artists’ responses revolve around the associations conjured by the word black. When applied to African-Americans, a people of widely varying skin color, it stands as a misnomer: a literary metaphor hijacked to demonize an entire race. Hence, longstanding efforts by Black artists to reclaim it as a positive attribute. Two fascinating abstract paintings — Too White to Be Black by Bethany Collins and Gumby Nation by Alteronce Gumby – illustrate. The first is a black canvas with the title written in longhand, chalk on charcoal, in the rote manner of a grade-school excercise meant to punish. With just three words fully visible, you’re left staring at a void, trying to recombine the fragments, and that effort drives a pipeline into the conundrum indicated by the title. Gumby’s painting, a scabrous field of black paint whose green undertones can only be detected by moving from side to side, uses the anamorphic effect to make visual the phenomenon Baldwin described, of essences hidden beneath surfaces that distort and conceal. Both paintings reveal how abstraction, long scorned by Black activists for its supposed inability to get at social issues, proves itself perfectly capable of doing exactly that kind of work. Two other works in this section also merit close attention.
Kara Walker’s silhouette of a Black girl pulling the innards out of a pig defines the extremes of racist caricature, pouring gasoline on a fire that recent events show was never extinguished. They include, most prominently, police killings of unarmed Black people, signaled here by a bundle on the floor enclosed by crime scene tape. It’s a sculpture by Kevin Beasley.
Not everything in Young Gifted and Black works as effectively. “Portraiture,” a section dominated by photography, leans too hard on visual devices that are either too obvious, too obscure, or pulled too far out of context to be readily understood. LaToya Ruby Frazier’s portrait of herself with her mother, to cite but one example, belongs to a series dealing with the toxic ruin that is Braddock, Pennsylvania, the artist’s hometown. It makes sense, but only alongside other works from the series that describe what transformed that once-thriving industrial town into a glaring example of environmental racism and ill health.
The lone exception in this section, Dark Room Mirror Study, shows the artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya naked in a contorted pose behind a camera aimed outward. It upends the usual viewer-subject relationship by turning both participants, artist and viewer, into reciprocating voyeurs, forming a hypothetical lens through which blackness and queerness can be seen as something more than a collection of jarring juxtapositions (like those seen in the first gallery).
The exhibition’s final segment, “Materiality,” harks to the long tradition of Black artists employing found and non-traditional materials. The most arresting example is Wilmer Wilson IV’s Pres, an enlarged (96 x 48 inch) photo of two party-goers pinned to a wood plank by thousands of staples. Arrayed in swirling patterns that resemble fish swimming in schools, they turn the source image into a giant slinky; it shimmies and sways in the reflected light, like Nick Cave dancing in one of his Soundsuits. Chiffon Thomas’ embroidered window screen, A mother who had no mother, transforms genteel middlebrow craft into a sculptural painting. Supplemented by hanging swaths of painted canvas shaped to look like an overstuffed chair, the piece practically leaps off its metal support, declaring at every stitch and fold the resolutely Black identity of artist and subject.
Such declarations permeate Young Gifted and Black, but not always in ways that fit neatly into predefined categories. Two that go missing are “Black and Proud” and “Black is Beautiful.” Into each fall exceptional works I’ve not mentioned. Three Women by Deana Lawson restages the kind of publicity photos that once prevailed at Black-owned record labels, only here the women are pictured naked, lavishly lit and in a rakish pose, revealing drop-dead beautiful skin tones. Den Mother, a drawing by Kerry James Marshall, may also stop you in your tracks. With a clenched fist in the foreground and a cartoonish explosion (a la Lichtenstein) emanating from the subject’s head, she poses a credible challenge to
any kid who might dare to misbehave. Sadie Barnette’s People’s World (Untitled) also throws down a challenge, this one to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which, during the 1960s, investigated her father and created an extensive dossier which she obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Two lavender-tinted pages of it are reproduced here under the rubric of portraiture, replete with handwritten notes calling out his alleged homosexuality, as well as purported links to the Communist Party and the Black Panthers, a political organization whose Ten-Point Program today reads more like a watered-down version of Bernie Sanders than as the revolutionary manifesto it was said to be. It represents blackness seen through the prism of white paranoia.
It’s hard to gauge the extent to which the works in Young Gifted and Black reflect the African-American zeitgeist. To assess that, we’d need to see more of them. What can be said with greater certainty is that this core sampling represents a quest for understanding on the part of Bernard Lumpkin, one half of the couple to whom these works belong and whose queries about his mixed-race parentage and queerness, he says, motivated him to begin collecting. Given that his family’s collection contains some 450 objects, Young Gifted and Black cries out for a sequel, maybe several.
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“Young Gifted and Black: A New Generation of Artists” @ Manetti Shrem Museum of Art through December 19, 2022.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.