Race issue a two-edged sword for black contemporary artists

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010; E01

They are called "knowledge cards" -- a glossy picture on the front of each, some factoids to explain it on the back -- and museums sell them in packs of 48, on all kinds of basic subjects: nature, the American presidency, the great buildings of Washington. The shop at the Smithsonian American Art Museum has added a new basic subject to the roster: It now sells a pack that features great works by black artists. The classic names are there: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett. There are also a few more recent figures: Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas, both abstractionists from Washington, as well as the New York expressionist Frederick Brown. The cards "celebrate the loves and passions of a people," according to their packaging, and tacitly assert that art by African Americans has become a new field of cue-card-worthy knowledge.

The pack may need to grow. So far, it leaves out an entire younger generation of black artists that may be the most important yet: Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Stan Douglas, Steve McQueen, Isaac Julian, Yinka Shonibare and Lorna Simpson are just a few of the figures who have become major players in contemporary art over the past decade or two. These artists make regular appearances in the world's most important museums, and at such career-making events as the Venice Biennale and the twice-a-decade Documenta survey in Germany, showing complex art that often mirrors the complexities of race. What still needs sorting out is whether the kind of art they make will ever be the kind that people want to buy a pack of cards about. Can huge success in the world of contemporary art lead to Bearden-style recognition in the world outside it?

"We've moved from the margin to the center," says Leslie King-Hammond, founding director of the new Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Last fall, her center sponsored an entire conference on the "Transformations" these new artists represent. King-Hammond compares their arrival on the scene to a transporter moment from "Star Trek." "You say to yourself, 'How did that happen?' They are certainly making a critical impact."

Glenn Ligon has also made headlines. The New York artist, born in 1960, got big coverage in October when the White House announced that the works it had borrowed for its walls included one of Ligon's trademark "text paintings." The piece, called "Black Like Me #2," consists of the phrase "All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence," which Ligon repeated from top to bottom of a canvas that's almost seven feet tall, making the words progressively more smeared and illegible as he went down. It's a sort of visual recapping of the journey taken by white journalist John Howard Griffin, in 1959, as he took on a black persona and the distortions imposed on blackness in a white society. Ligon refuses to let us forget them.

"I was so glad to see him in the White House," says Naomi Beckwith, a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She's speaking from the middle of her latest show, a survey of new work by black artists that includes a more recent text piece by Ligon in which the writing is made of neon. It riffs on another famous neon piece, by conceptualist superstar Bruce Nauman, which gathered together 100 almost random phrases and rendered them in colored neon. Ligon has pulled out two of Nauman's all-capped phrases -- "BLACK AND DIE" and "BLACK AND LIVE" -- and stuck them on the wall in white neon, with the front surface of each tube painted black so the light can escape only from behind. They present us with the almost-oxymoron of a dark statement that casts light. The absurdist, multicolored world of Nauman, whose piece included "LAUGH AND LIVE" in pink neon and "TOUCH AND DIE" in yellow, gets reduced to the starkest binaries of African American experience.

Blackness rising

Ligon acknowledges the "greater level of visibility" that he and his black colleagues now achieve, and explains it in terms that are almost statistical: The sheer number of black artists being turned out by art schools has helped "normalize" their presence on the wider scene, he says, speaking by phone from New York. Beckwith cites a longer history of integration in art schools than in many other institutions -- her grandmother studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she says -- and she sees that as at long last bearing fruit.

"The system that conveys art has changed," says Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. A globalized art world now provides a whole new set of international venues for black artists to make it big in, she explains. Compared with the situation today, there was barely a world stage for Catlett or Bearden to tread.

Yet more has changed than that. When Catlett and Bearden were admired in the larger art world, they were often being judged as makers of "black art" -- a category apart, like ceramics or stained glass. Now, race is no longer "a premise for judging or dismissing," Conwill says. Instead, it is "part of the package" that lets black artists take their place among artists of all colors. Ligon and company aren't making it big despite their skin color, or in a separate field that's all and only about being black. They are using race as a potent force that moves them from the sidelines to the thick of things.

Black, in shades of gray

Take the work of Kara Walker, a 40-year-old who is possibly the best-known of these artists, both here and abroad. Her work uses genteel cut-out silhouettes to build a nightmare image of the antebellum South, full of violence, sex and violent sex. "It's more open-ended than people allow it to be," says Beckwith, the curator from Harlem. "Kara Walker has never been a slave. . . . What is happening is in her fantasy world." You could say that all Walker's work is about how memories of real horrors and injustices lodge in the fantasies and libidos of the groups that survive them. This is just the kind of fiendishly complicated situation that makes for the best contemporary art.

Speaking by phone from her Center for Race and Culture, King-Hammond says that "race is a political construct, a total mythology" that "tries to lock you into an inauthentic identity." Black artists can use their awareness of this as "fodder" to make art that liberates them, and us, from the limiting identities of race. "Instead of race being used as the dog that bites our tail," King-Hammond says, "race is now used as the flag, the anthem you use to create your path to freedom."

Such play with race has risks. King-Hammond talks about how Walker has been "dogged" in some parts of the African American community for making art that's seen as perpetuating the violent imagery of racism, and giving it a titillating edge. She also cites the trouble black director Spike Lee got into in 2000 with "Bamboozled," a satire that riffed on some of the worst stereotypes of the blackface minstrel show -- and was sometimes read as promoting them. And King-Hammond remembers her own friends' shock, decades ago, when she started to collect racist toys from earlier times. "After a while it just gets damned annoying. Here comes that dog" -- the dog of race -- "biting at your ass again." You need to be able to say, "I'm the homo sapiens. . . . You either take control of it, or it takes control of you."

Outrunning the race dog

The show Beckwith has curated at the Studio Museum comes at a moment when it's at last possible to "think about what it is to be a black artist," she says, rather than simply assuming there's such a thing as black art and a black aesthetic that speak to transparently black issues.

Late in the 20th century, the most sophisticated black artists "took their work beyond the racial and cultural 'scarification' that identified previous generations," writes Duke University professor Richard J. Powell in "Black Art: A Cultural History," his discipline's textbook. Instead of hanging on to such "tribal markings," as Powell puts it, these artists have spent their time "analyzing socially rooted emblems, questioning traditional concepts of identity . . . and, in general, dealing with culture and history as artistic currency."

Or, more shocking yet, occasionally refusing to deal with racial history and culture at all. If Ligon and Walker mostly make work about race, some of their most prominent black peers, especially the non-Americans among them, have what Powell has called a " 'Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm not, sometimes I forget' sense of the racial."

He was referring to the film and video artist Steve McQueen, who was born in London in 1969. In one famous work from 1993 titled "Bear," projected at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2008 and now in its collection, two naked black men, one McQueen himself, are shown wrestling -- with each other, and thereby with the whole Hollywood idea of black man as animal. (There's also a complicating subtext: The two men might almost be lovers.)

Another well-known work by McQueen, which helped win him Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 1999, has a more cryptic take on race. For a 1997 piece called "Deadpan," the artist restaged a famous scene from a Buster Keaton film where the facade of a half-built house almost squashes the silent comedian. In his version, however, McQueen has cast himself as the almost-squashee, and replayed the scene from every possible angle. It's the black man as perpetual victim -- except that he escapes each time. And the black man as stoic sufferer -- who's never actually made to feel pain. And, maybe, it's a black artist testing the notion that he might stand in for a famous white man acting in a well-loved scene, without having to be read as black at all. Can there be such a thing as colorblind casting, in art or in life?

In a sense, much of McQueen's more recent work has that question lurking behind it. By virtue of not treating race in any visible way, can it manage to escape the grip of race? Or does race become "the pink elephant in the room," as King-Hammond puts it, bellowing more loudly the more we try to ignore it?

By far the biggest project McQueen has attempted so far is the full-length feature film "Hunger," given wide release last year, about the fatal hunger strike of the IRA prisoner Bobby Sands. Not a black person in sight for the entire 96 minutes of the movie, as Powell points out over the phone from his office at Duke. And yet, he says, McQueen's blackness, and his history of using it in his art, inevitably prompts thoughts about the notion of the Irish as the blacks of Britain's empire, and about the conflicts blacks have had with white jailers in America. McQueen and his peers come to the art world, Powell says, at a time when "their very blackness gets factored into what they do -- whether they want it or not."

It's also a factor in the first successes of a figure such as McQueen: "The fact that in his work the humanity was black, while of secondary importance to the greater artistic vision, was undoubtedly a part of this work's allure," Powell says.

Most of the films and videos of Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, a 49-year-old who made it big a bit before McQueen, feature white actors. But we inevitably read a different, extra resonance into the few works whose actors have the same dark skin as his: A 30-second "monodrama" (Douglas's term) that captures a cryptic encounter between a black man and a white one; a remake of 1960s footage of African American free-jazz musicians performing in France; an eerie almost-narrative about a black woman exploring an empty house in Detroit.

Success in the shadows

Allure, success, big prizes, prestigious shows -- if cutting-edge black artists have so clearly got it made, why are they almost unknown outside the little world of contemporary art where they've managed to reach stardom? Why hasn't the larger community -- or at very least the larger black community -- adopted them as cultural heroes, alongside Tanner and Bearden? They aren't in that pack of cards, and it's not clear they will be anytime soon.

King-Hammond says she was shocked to discover that friends from outside the art world had never heard of Yinka Shonibare, even though that Nigerian-British art star is the subject of a big touring retrospective that has touched down on the Mall, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. "You guys have got to get up to speed," she remembers saying to them -- Shonibare and his peers "have already entered the stratosphere."

The most common explanation for this neglect is that serious contemporary art is too difficult and esoteric to have broad appeal in any larger community of Americans. Ligon says that artists like him are "a small blip" in the broader contemporary culture. "My mother said to me that the only artists she'd ever heard of are dead."

Adrienne Childs, a curator at the David C. Driskell Center for African American art at the University of Maryland, wonders "how much the general public -- black or white or green -- is tuned in to avant-garde contemporary art." But she also advances the possibility that even elites in the black community may have a notably hard time with such art. "I still have this gut feeling that African American collectors tend to be more guarded -- cautious -- when it comes to avant-garde work." They tend to relish art "as a culturally and spiritually uplifting and motivational vehicle," she says. "But 'uplifting' is not popular when it comes to contemporary art."

Powell, her colleague at Duke, points out that for "people of African descent," the works of a Walker or a Ligon touch such raw nerves that they might be hard to live with day-to-day. They hardly "celebrate the loves and passions of a people," as the works in the pack of cards are said to do.

Still traumatized?

African Americans are still dealing with something King-Hammond dubs "post-traumatic stress slavery syndrome." She describes them as "traumanauts" who can't achieve the aesthetic remove a white viewer might have, when confronted by complex art that picks at the scabs of race. "You can't be like Precious and magically escape when you see your blackness in the mirror," she says, referring to the title character in the recent film, who imagined herself out of painful situations. "Being black in America is an extraordinarily conflicted existence."

King-Hammond talks about how the first heroes of black art were all about the affirmation that was needed then. "They were telling precious stories, preserving heritage," she says, even proving that, "yes, you can paint the image of a black person." That cultural role may have been taken over by all the African Americans working in movies and music, whom most blacks now look to as symbols of success.

When it comes to racially charged contemporary art, she finds members of the black community expressing doubts about its "authenticity and appropriateness." They ask whether a Walker cut-out makes "a good statement or a bad statement," rather than asking if it's compelling art or not. For a larger black audience, she says, "the ugliness of the race thing is prohibitive." It's not something to be probed and questioned by art, but to be shunned as "the vampire in the house" that no one wants to encounter.

Whereas the larger art world may cherish the frisson of race. Speaking from her office at the Driskell Center, Childs worries that the success of what she calls Walker's "emotive" take on race is really all about "blackness being fetishized by a white audience." She talks about "a certain avant-garde white consumer" who, since at least the 1920s, has tended to view the race-based work of black artists as an "exotic and interesting" spectacle -- and therefore different from the supposedly race-free work that white artists produce. Powell notes that there's a history of how "black subjectivity appears and disappears" as an art world interest, as though it's not much more than a fashion.

Ligon says he's obviously happy that works by him and his peers are getting into major museum collections. But he wonders if that will pan out as the kind of "sustained institutional support" that leads to in-depth acquisitions. Will the race-themed works of Ligon and Walker, of McQueen and Douglas, be acquired as notable examples of something called "black art," or as signs of important artistic achievements that don't simply depend on skin color?

"We're still the subject of articles about black artists," Ligon says. ". . . That's the reality."

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