What do you see when you look in the mirror? Rarely just your empirical self.
You concentrate on a particular feature, checking for bags under tired eyes or anticipating a critical comment. You adjust your facial expression to match how you want to be seen in the next situation you enter. You can even see no one at all, merely going through the motions of a gaze while reflecting internally on some preoccupation. Or sometimes you look into the mirror to see what or who is behind you.
Identity is the primary medium in 30 Americans, a show of more than 70 works from 31 leading artists running through Sept. 4 in the older East Building at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. If the show's title seems bland, rest assured that the work is everything but that—it's groundbreaking, in fact. And the title is groundbreaking too, for the words that have been left out of it.
This show could have been called 30 Black Americans or 30 African Americans, as the exhibition statement notes. All of the artists are black. It might seem a subtle elision to some, but really it's a significant one. The presumptive terminology for generations has been that you just say "artist" if the artist is white, but you say "black artist" if he or she is black. The same presumption holds in other disciplines such as athletics and politics: George W. Bush will never be called our 43rd white president.
Issues of race, history, memory and language guide the hands of the image-makers in this exhibition. It's as much about the artists as it is about their works, which all come from the Rubell Family Collection. Since the Miami-based Rubells established their collection in 1964 they have built holdings on par with many art museums, and in fact they opened their own museum in 1996 in a converted DEA warehouse.
As if the space's 15,000 square feet wasn't enough, 30 Americans has something of a concurrent sister show in Building the Contemporary Collection: Five Years of Acquisitions at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The Nasher show, which runs through Aug. 14, includes offerings by 12 of the NCMA show's artists whose work is in its permanent collection.
Some artists have work in both shows in different media, offering a complementary view. The Nasher displays photographs by Mickalene Thomas and Barkley Hendricks—who studied with Robert Frank—that provide insight into their better-known paintings at the NCMA. In the NCMA show, the Hank Willis Thomas photograph "Priceless"—a biting satire of the MasterCard ad campaign that lists the hard costs of experiences—is placed atop an image of his murdered cousin's funeral, providing a counterpoint to his stop-motion video at the Nasher, which re-creates the murder with action figures.
It's a little hard to believe once you see this show, but the Rubells insist that they didn't set out to collect African-American art—it just sort of happened. Before you say "yeah, right" under your breath, listen to how Jason Rubell, who helps shape the family's collection and sits on the Nasher's board as well, explained their approach to collecting art in a panel discussion March 16 at the Nasher with Barkley Hendricks, Mickalene Thomas and Nasher curator Trevor Schoonmaker.
"We basically try and connect what now becomes for us historical—because the collection's really starting in the late '60s to the early '70s when it really starts moving—what we consider historical and what connects to a lot of the younger things. When some of the younger artists start talking about their predecessors and their influences, and we happen to have that already in the collection, then fireworks start happening."
Thomas backed up this mentoring narrative when she talked about what Hendricks' work has meant to her. A longtime admirer, she recently bought a Hendricks photograph. When she told Hendricks about her acquisition of his work, he told her that he'd cut one of her images out of a magazine and put it up on his studio wall. Thomas freaked.
"I ran to the bathroom and cried. That's, for me, what it's about. For him to say that to me is like ... wow. You know? Like, Barkley Hendricks saw my image and responded to it in that way. For me, that's what 30 Americans is about. Sort of bridging the gap and bringing generations together in ways that were unspoken."
Linda Dougherty, curator of contemporary art at the NCMA, discussed the inter-generational connections in the show as we walked from a passageway shared by Pop Art star Jean-Michel Basquiat and 40-something LA artist Mark Bradford into a room in which Leonardo Drew's massive, freestanding cotton-bale wall separates Kara Walker's grotesque slavery mural "Camptown Ladies" from Rodney McMillian's "Untitled," which consists of a stained, worn expanse of beige carpet culled from his grandmother's apartment.
"There are certain works I wanted to put together," Dougherty says. "Like for the Basquiat and the Bradford, I wanted to show how one influenced the other. Or just, in this room I was thinking about the South and slavery and the cotton bales, and I wanted those together."
Both a minstrelsy spoof and a lynching-era horror, Walker's signature silhouette work covers a wall the length of a school bus with a dark parade of black paper cutouts. A jockey rides a slave's back, flicking her hindquarters with a crop while dangling a carrot in front of her to chase. A little girl at play pushes a wheel with a stick, but the wheel is splintered and the girl's nappy head is monstrous and fanged. A two-faced woman in equine posture, another carrot protruding from her anus, gallops toward the words "The End" that float in clouds at the end of the wall.
The drained palette of the room carries through Drew's bale (which has a sick, waxy odor if you lean close to it and sniff) into McMillian's ubiquitous crappy rental apartment carpet, which offers the challenge to figure out its room's furniture arrangement and traffic patterns from the arcane marks of spilled drinks and shoe scuffs.
The three works, in dun, white and black, give the room a haunted feeling after the brash colors, gestures and text of Basquiat and Bradford. But "Bird on Money," one of Basquiat's three works, is perhaps the most haunting work in the exhibition.
At the media preview, Mera Rubell, the family's matriarch and walking archive, pointed out the lower right corner of Basquiat's painting, where the word "Greenwood" hovers among diagrammatic lines.
"This is a map of a [typically] white cemetery on Ocean Parkway. Now, as premonition would have it, he ends up being buried in this white cemetery. I spoke to his dad—this is after this all happened. When he saw this painting he couldn't believe it. He said, 'How is it that my son... does a painting with the Green-Wood Cemetery in the painting, then ends up being buried here?' He didn't know about that."
Basquiat's painting could almost be clicked and dragged across the wall to connect up colors and lines with Bradford's adjacent "Whore in the Church House." Repeatedly collaged and worked, Bradford's surface features blurrier visual ambiguities compared with the older artist's palimpsest scrawls, but both works dazzle with colors, shapes, and lines that echo storm systems and city grids seen from space.
Whether showing how the older artists in the collection directly mentored the younger artists, or grouping works with a thematic or pictorial resonance, the arrangement of works in 30 Americans offers many spectacular and intense moments.
"The relationships here are just blowing me away," Rubell tells me.
Standing in the exhibition's first room, where Mickalene Thomas' rhinestone, acrylic and enamel portrait of a 1970s funk goddess glares across the space at Wangechi Mutu's polymorphous assemblage and collage of animal femininity, titled "Non je ne regrette rien," Rubell marvels at the arrangements of the rooms and draws my attention to a connection between the two.
"Look at the power between these two pieces. This [Mutu's piece] is about a kind of abstract power and then this [Thomas'] is about a kind of personal portraiture power. It's like a whole duo exhibition between these two."
30 Americans features many contemporary takes on the portraiture tradition. Kehinde Wiley's large-scale paintings both honor and analyze it. Wiley asks people he sees in his travels to sit down with him to peruse art history books. His model chooses a historical painting to pose within, taking the place of the original subject. Wiley takes photographs of the pose and returns to his studio to painstakingly re-create the portrait with his new model.
Part of the experience of looking at Wiley's paintings is musing about how his models, who likely lacked a sense of art history, made their choices. In the Velasquez re-creation "Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares," a man in black Nikes and a red hoodie emblazoned on the back with the logo "Discover greatness: Negro Leagues" looks ironically yet proudly over his shoulder from the back of a rearing white horse, his cell phone clipped to the same belt as an ornate golden scabbard. I imagine that Laurence Fishburne's character in the Matrix movies had something to do with another man's choice to play Morpheus in Wiley's monumental "Sleep," which at 25 feet wide is difficult to fit in one's visual field all at once.
A room featuring three Hank Willis Thomas photographs among its works might be the center of the show, buzzing with an intense, angry intelligence. Thomas appropriates and alters images and text from advertising to connect black athletes to slaves, adding a small Nike swoosh scar to a shaved head in "Branded Head" and shackling an NBA basketball to one of a pair of leaping sneakers in "Basketball and Chain." The simple, ironic images feed back upon the emotional content of the aforementioned "Priceless," bringing a second meaning to the name of the credit card it parrots.
Thomas' images are accompanied by Rashid Johnson's two black altars, which seem ransacked and charred, and include album covers by Al Green and Robert Guillaume, as well as gold vases and rocks. Sharing a corner with Johnson's altars is Kerry James Marshall's wall installation "Souvenir: Composition in Three Parts," which deals with an actual burned altar—that of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which was firebombed in 1963, killing four girls. Johnson's arrangement of a video still of the church's interior, a re-creation of the flowered crucifix signage of the church, and a black-fringed shelf holding only a card reading "As seen on TV" denies the easy emotional reaction to the event, forcing you to remember that the tragedy is as much a media event now as it is something that really happened.
Muscular irony does not dominate the show, however. In fact, almost every image could knock you out with its various colors and patterns, acknowledging the role that the decorative arts and crafts have played for African-American artists. Mera Rubell noted that Mark Bradford grew up in his mother's beauty parlor.
"You see this kind-of shiny material?" she said, indicating a burnished foil throughout the work's surface. "You know when you go to a beauty parlor, and you have the tinting done?" She pinched a strand of hair to demonstrate.
"A lot of times, African-American art is put down because it loved to deal with materials of craft. And there came a point when these artists had the courage to say 'I'm going to use whatever I want to use to say what I'm going to say.'"
Her point is evident in every room, from Mickalene Thomas' dense application of rhinestones and fingernail polish-like enamels to the bizarre constructions of fashion and hardware materials in Nick Cave's headless Soundsuits. Even conceptualist Glenn Ligon, who currently has a major retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, draws from decorative arts in the neon and paint works included.
At last week's media preview, NCMA director Lawrence Wheeler made a couple of noteworthy points. After mentioning that these artists often have a "great sense of humor," he related his own constantly refreshing enthusiasm. "They couldn't keep me out of the exhibition hall for the last three weeks. Every time they put up five new pieces, I would be in there, thrilled all over again."
Wheeler's instincts are spot-on. This vast show merits multiple visits, including some time in the exhibition's final room watching video of the Rubell family's interviews with many of the artists. Ultimately, 30 Americans expresses not just what defines these artists but what they choose to define themselves. Their medium changes from identity to agency as soon as you look into it.
Correction (March 23, 2011): The title of Hank Willis Thomas' “Branded Head” was incorrect in this story in print; it was correct on the cover image.