At any given moment in this country, there are museums, galleries, performing arts centers, film societies, theater groups and book clubs, all focusing on the artistic work of people who share something in common: race, gender, religion, sexual identity. And the assumption is almost always the same: that people who are demographically alike in some way must produce artworks with something in common.
“30 Americans,” an exhibition of art by African Americans at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is another such exhibition, and it necessarily shares the ideological confusion of most of the others. Drawn from the extensive private holdings of the Rubell Family Collection, “30 Americans” is a smaller version of a show first mounted at the Rubells’ home/museum/art center in Miami in late 2008 and early 2009. The title, identifying the 31 artists represented as simply 30 Americans, cleverly hints at the inevitable confusion contained therein: Do the artists belong to a coherent group, is it a group that can be identified by race or skin color, and is this a liberating, restricting, or simply an ineluctable category?
The exhibition arrives at the Corcoran slightly more than 18 months after the museum announced that it had sold the Randall School, a property in Southwest Washington, to a partnership that includes Don and Mera Rubell, who have announced plans to redevelop the property as a museum and hotel complex. So there are two problems that haunt this show — its premise is problematic, and it has the appearance, at least, of being a conflict of interest.
The first problem is substantial indeed, but at least it has been addressed. Almost every work on display is in some ways an argument with the basic organizing principle of the exhibition. Far from being simple exemplars of African American art, the works in “30 Americans” range from parodies of that idea to direct confrontations with efforts to categorize, define and contain racial identity.
Two of the most visually sumptuous, Kara Walker’s 1998 silhouette mural “Camptown Ladies” and Kehinde Wiley’s large-scale 2008 oil painting “Sleep,” limn many of the basic strategies. Walker’s paper cutouts depict stereotyped African American figures, still dressed as if in the South of slavery or Reconstruction, dancing across a white wall in strange orgies of eroticism and violence. Unlike artists of earlier generations, who sought dignified portrayals of African American life and fought to redeem categories of racial identity, Walker embraces the worst of it, sets it in motion, makes it beautiful and invites the spectator to be seduced, entertained and ultimately horrified at the spectacle. There is an implicit hope that these minstrel figures will dance themselves to death, setting to rest an invention of white racism.
Wiley’s baroque paintings, in which contemporary African American men are interpolated into sumptuously detailed and meticulously painted canvasses that make reference to some of the most theatrical paintings in the Western “white” canon, suggest a willingness to surf above the complicated history of racial identity, parodying, borrowing and subverting at will.