Racial Redefinition in Progress: ‘Fore’ at Studio Museum in Harlem
By HOLLAND COTTER
In 2001 the Studio Museum in Harlem opened a group exhibition called “Freestyle,” the first in what would be a series intended to introduce freshly minted African-American talent. And in the catalog for that show the curator, Thelma Golden, dropped a neat little cultural bomb. She referred to the group of artists she’d chosen, most of them then in their 20s, as “post-black.”
Heads spun, and are still spinning. Artists of an older generation, particularly those deeply invested in lifelong issues of black pride, were angry. The handle-hungry art market was flummoxed, unsure of how to capitalize on the label.
Even some young artists to whom it was applied weren’t quite clear about what to do with it. Overnight the dynamics of contemporary art changed.
Although little noted in the midst of the uproar at the time, Ms. Golden herself held the term “post-black” at a critical distance, floating it out as a proposition rather than advancing it as a polemic. For her it meant artists who were adamant about not being confined to the category of “black,” though, as she wrote, “their work was deeply interested in redefining complex notions of blackness. Post-black,” she added with a wry twist, “was the new black.”
More than a decade later it still is, to judge by the fourth and latest of the museum’s new-generation shows, this one titled “Fore,” organized by three young staff curators, Lauren Haynes, Naima J. Keith and Thomas J. Lax. Like its predecessors it keeps racial politics alive but discreet and covers the waterfront in terms of mediums, which it samples and mixes with turntablist flair.
In line with current New York trends, painting gets major attention. Three smallish portraits by Jennifer Packer (born 1985; Yale M.F.A. 2012) of art-school friends kick things off. They’re traditional looking and beautiful, their suave brushwork finessed with a palette knife. Portraits by another artist, Toyin Odutola, who was born in Nigeria and now lives in Los Angeles, are more offbeat and generate interesting ideas. Ms. Odutola makes her sitters so black that their forms read like solid, featureless silhouettes from across a room. Only up close do you see that their eyes are wide open, and their skin is a porous weave of ropy ink lines, with rainbow color glinting through like light from behind.
Another Los Angeles artist, Kenyatta A. C. Hinkle, uses images from colonial-era postcards, made for European eyes, to make a point about the vulnerability of the body when seen through a racial lens. In her paint-altered version of the original cards, nude and seminude “native” women from West Africa are under assault from swarming lines of white pigment that bring to mind flames, microbes and spermatozoa.
Then the figure vanishes. It’s just a shadowy smudge on an abstract gold field in a diptych by Noah Davis, and absent altogether in abstract paintings by Kianja Strobert, Sienna Shields and Brenna Youngblood.
Ms. Youngblood looks particularly impressive here. She has, however temporarily, exchanged her complicated, object-laden painting mode of a few years ago for a near-Minimalist austerity. But nothing she does is simple. One 2012 picture in the show consists primarily of a plain white unmarked panel, yet the addition of a small scrap of stuck-on signage keeps her art in painting-plus-something-else terrain.
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