I’ve been trying to get out there and see more art these last few months. To that end, I went to see two thought-provoking shows earlier in September, one in New York and one in Philadelphia. The New York show was the often-derided Whitney Biennial, and the Philly show was the Isaac Julien “Once Again” exhibit at the Barnes Foundation. The latter show was a far more compelling exhibit for me, in fact the Julien show by the end of it felt like it was literally extracting tears from my eyes, it was so emotional and beautiful. My takeaways from both exhibitions: the Biennial indulged in a journalistic and often dystopian survey of art throughout North America, while the Barnes show sought to celebrate the primacy of African art, specifically African sculptures in the art history canon.
I left my last blog bemoaning this dystopian ideation of art primarily as a reaction to the Whitney show. The first floor of the show literally has black paint covering all its walls. This decision, an obvious nod to the pandemic, felt very easy and on-the-nose. Put frankly, it made the rest of the experience a bit exhausting, as if I were told from the beginning that I was about to be lectured through the entire exhibition. Most of the work, especially the video and installation art, felt journalistic to me. Describing the issues brought up over these pandemic years. The “Me Too” and “BLM” movements were well represented amongst the artists. Also, a ghoulish theme seemed to be ever-present, with literal monsters on the walls or clever takes on disposable employees at the likes of Amazon or Walmart. The exhibit had loads of paintings, far more than I expected. As a painter, I go to this kind of event first and foremost because it is my great love. I will mention the three paintings I appreciated/reacted to the most during my visit. The first two are paintings that greet you once you walk off the elevator. The two works by Denyse Thomasos, “Displaced Burial” and “Jail”, both definitely gave me the sense of imprisonment, in a way that I often enjoy in my own works. I might not have even been bothered by the works at all were it not for how they were arranged. On their own, the pieces are beautiful heroic works evoking galaxies of information. In each piece, paint was dichotomously layered both aggressively and lovingly while contrasting marks gave each work a spooky air. However, I was disappointed at how these excellent pieces were used as totems or guards of the floor. It felt like a descent into hell which saddled the pieces with context that they on their own did not evoke.
Once one enters this gallery where these two aforementioned works stand as centurions, we see two more monochromatic abstract pieces. These works, “Untitled, (Days)” by Adam Pendleton, brought that sense of the galactic and all-encompassing that I admired in Thomasos’s work down to a terrestrial level. The pieces felt like intimate selfies with a group of friends, vertical gestural lines which were oddly human sized and reminded me a bit of language or script, stand up commandingly against a shadowy backdrop. I think the success of this painting lies not just in its successful mark making which invited a conversation – especially the sense the marks are so related to a person – it was also the canvas size. The artist smartly chose a composition and size relationship that invited close observation. These two works were, in my opinion, better guardians of the floor than Thomasos’, though again her pieces were stunning when considered individually and out of the off-putting way the curators displayed them.
The painting I think I fell in love with the most in the show was by Houston based artist Rick Lowe. His piece was installed originally at Project Rowhouses, which is this series of rowhomes that were years ago set up so artists who specialize in project based or installation art can do their works. Lowe’s Project Rowhouse work, called “If Artists Are Creative Why Can’t The Create Solutions”, was first exhibited in 2021 before it was brought to the Whitney Biennial. The piece itself was apparently inspired by dominoes, but to me it has a similar all over and galactic feel like Thomasos’s works. This work is again monochromatic… a pretty clear theme the curators seemed to want to drive home with their viewers. Lowe’s work also shares that linguistic quality I saw in Pendleton’s pieces, with Lowe’s work reminding me specifically of hieroglyphics. What I think I most appreciated about his piece was how he tried to create an abstract composition that felt familiar to the people and places he grew up with. I can relate to that aspiration.
The Isaac Julian Show at the Barnes was a thunder stroke. I knew it would be for me and I went into the exhibit with a cocky determination to not be affected. My resolve quickly faded as I was emotionally raped by the stirring singing and ethereal music set again the backdrop of lofty mansions where figures compare African sculpture and art with their European counterparts. I’m of the opinion that the sublime requires no commentary to describe it, it just is. I think were this the idea behind the show, then the work might have achieved a more culturally useful note. This was because as excellent as the film and installation were, they still served the unfortunate role of educating and reminding the audience of the brilliance of this historical tradition.
Beautiful gay black men sculpt other beautiful gay black men in this installation, while still other beautiful gay black men in beautiful clothes and with elocution that would make Oscar Wilde jealous, speak in profundities. So why was I so emotional during this display? The slow-moving camera work and music had a lot to do with it, but the African sculptures depicted are a powerful image in and of themselves. One thing I do remember from studying African Art was that these objects are made in a context. Certain rites, rituals and incantations are linked to the objects, making their presence in Western temples of the arts seem like a sacrilege. I think these objects were saying as much, and Julien’s close-up of these objects hammered that message home more deliberately and successfully than the curators at the Whitney did. In both shows, black art is used as prop. The Barnes acknowledged it in its installation, while it came off as though the Whitney didn’t realize what they were doing.
Beyonce has a lyric on her new recording Renaissance on the song “Alien Superstar” that goes:
We dress a certain way, we walk a certain way
We talk a certain way, we-we paint a certain way
We-we make love a certain way, you know
All of these things we do in a different
Unique, specific way that is personally ours
When I see a successful work of art, it feels like the work wants to come to life and live in our world. Perhaps seeing art with an authentic vivacity at its core makes BIPOC art unique, much like our American pop queen suggests. One thing these shows helped remind me of is how false art divorced from active engagement feels, and how I owe it to myself to make sure my work is always presented in the context they were designed for.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to the discography Al Green, and so continues my slow steady march into old black man music. I don’t know what it is about his sound, but it seems like so much of it is attached to some longing. Maybe that’s what middle age is all about. Being old enough to remember regrets, with fewer and fewer days to get it right. Anyway, here are two selections I played repeatedly like a month ago while thinking of old exes. Here are “La La for You” and “What A Wonderful Thing Love Is”.
I did pretty well at a local art event and had a sale at a gallery that’s selling my works in a group show. I need to bottle this feeling because all artists know what goes up must come down. Over the next few weeks, I hope to prepare myself for this inevitability. I’m actively working to finish up on some smaller pieces and finally tear into my Fall commissions that are nearing their due date. I hope I will finally slay those dragons soon so I can move onto other ideas. I’ll write about where these works stand as they are nearing their end in my next post. Until then do be well!