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 Newkirk’s 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, pomade’s smell and connotations would be recognizable primarily to black viewers unlike work forced to assume a white audience.

In Susan Smith-Pinelo’s 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 Jackson’s Working Day and Night. Giggles turn to desensitization, as in Yoko Ono’s video Bottoms, where the sexualized part becomes demystified, transformed into pure form and movement. Commenting on routine exploitation of woman’s bodies in the bling-bling faction of hip-hop culture, Smith-Pinelo illustrates bell hooks’ and Andrea Dovorkin’s 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 girl’s 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 Gogh’s la berceuse painting of Madam Roulin as maternal divine, the grid seems to grow as an extension of the girl’s reverie. The Conceptual tension is in the contrast of the grid’s open, linear domination of space and circularity within the photograph. If there were a geometry to identity, circles would signify the stigmatized “other”; from women’s physical roundness to the Sisyphus-like circularity of mundane oppression and the maintenance of “vicious cycles”.

Minimalism’s cultural blindness contrasted with Socio-Historical identification enters into Mark Bradford’s “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 Hess’s latex forms and Mark Rothko’s transcendent color abstractions.

Sanford Bigg’s video installation, a small world, juxtaposes family videos from a middle-class black and a middle-class Jewish household. Powerfully representing class’s 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 Griffin’s 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 Spiegelman’s Maus, Griffin’s 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. Fashion’s 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.

Ana Honigman

New York, New York
2002

 

Eric Wesley, KICKING ASS, 2000, mixed media

 

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