Kori Newkirk, "All Over", 2000
FREESTYLE: THE STUDIO MUSEUM: HARLEM, NEW YORK
In her introduction to the Freestyle catalogue, curator Thelma Golden defines Post-black, the term she and Glen Ligon coined to represent the new generation of black artists, as adamant about not being labeled black artists, though their work is steeped, in fact deeply interested in, redefining complex notions of blackness. The 28 young black artists in Freestyle choose to define race as cultural, historical and intellectual constructs with fluid meaning though human effects. The result is a powerful, clever and beautiful show rooted in academic questioning of the intimate conflict between identity, being identified, and identification.
Art often presupposes a white viewer since whiteness still dominates the art world, but in Freestyle there is never the sense that the artists feel the need to educate the outside viewer about the other. As black lesbian Feminist scholar and poet Audre Lorde points out, one of the foundations of oppression is the endless need of the oppressed to educate the oppressor in her/his humanity. All through Freestyle and especially in Kori Newkirks site-specific installation All Over, references are directed toward a black viewer. In All Over, Newkirk uses hair pomade on the wall forming the shape of a black helicopter. Called ghetto birds because of their common presence in the cityscape, the black helicopter is also part of American militia conspiracy mythology as the vehicle of UN one world government authoritarianism against undesirable elements. Combining pomade, a medium of assimilation used to straighten black hair, with the black helicopter, Newkirk mixes overt and covert forms of Racist erasure of identity. Significant to the piece, pomades smell and connotations would be recognizable primarily to black viewers unlike work forced to assume a white audience.
In Susan Smith-Pinelos video Sometimes, the artists breasts are framed between the low, low neckline of a white tank top and a necklace with the word ghetto encrusted in diamonds, as they jiggle and bounce to the beat of Michael Jacksons Working Day and Night. Giggles turn to desensitization, as in Yoko Onos video Bottoms, where the sexualized part becomes demystified, transformed into pure form and movement. Commenting on routine exploitation of womans bodies in the bling-bling faction of hip-hop culture, Smith-Pinelo illustrates bell hooks and Andrea Dovorkins assertions that woman of color are forced to chose allegiance, denying the Sexism of their culture or else being considered dissidents. While similar to 70s Feminist art, or the 80s black art movement, what matters is not whether it is fresh and new, but that it is strong, funny, and conceptually en pointe.
Feminist art and the vocabulary of Feminist identity discourse is present throughout Freestyle, where the tyranny of high Modernist ideals is contested and intimate, and mundane activities are portrayed as mergers between individuals and their sociological definition. Feminist Deconstruction and antagonism toward high Modernist/elite Male reign over the Art World feels outdated in Jeans weak Gary Hume-like amorphous color splotches, but is sharp and eloquent in Jennie Jones homage to an unknown suburban black girl. There, Jones takes a found photograph of a pretty black teenage girl with an afro posing in a white baby-doll dress and tights before calico stripped wallpaper. This photograph, with its contrasts between the girls store bought dress and her anti-assimilationist hairstyle, is placed within a Mondrian grid, extending the length of the wall. As with the wallpaper in Van Goghs la berceuse painting of Madam Roulin as maternal divine, the grid seems to grow as an extension of the girls reverie. The Conceptual tension is in the contrast of the grids open, linear domination of space and circularity within the photograph. If there were a geometry to identity, circles would signify the stigmatized other; from womens physical roundness to the Sisyphus-like circularity of mundane oppression and the maintenance of vicious cycles.
Minimalisms cultural blindness contrasted with Socio-Historical identification enters into Mark Bradfords Enter and Exit the new Negro, where hair end-papers dyed with cellophane hair-color are woven together to create ethereal looking Minimalist sheets reminiscent of Eva Hesss latex forms and Mark Rothkos transcendent color abstractions.
Sanford Biggs video installation, a small world, juxtaposes family videos from a middle-class black and a middle-class Jewish household. Powerfully representing classs involvement in assumptions about race, Biggs also complements two ethnic groups whose identity has been molded by tensions between assimilation, prejudice, and heritage. Similarly, Kojo Griffins exquisite paintings use stuffed animal protagonists in scenes of violence, pain, isolation, and manipulation. Stuffed animals are what children project their underdeveloped emotional associations upon. Unlike Art Spiegelmans Maus, Griffins creatures are not direct stand-ins for racial groups but they do embody the dangerous projections underlying stereotypes.
It is a tragedy that Multi-cultural art has suffered from the same effect that kills revolutions; fashion which easily turns to derision. Fashions nature is to change, but the issues dealt with in identity art of the 70s, 80s, and 90s are still highly relevant and the discussions, as Freestyle proves, are still beautiful and still consequential.
New York, New York
Eric Wesley, KICKING ASS, 2000, mixed media