Created by Guatemalan artist Dario Escobar, who often turns sporting equipment into beautiful but unusable symbols, the silver surfboard stands more than six feet high. Its knobby floral embossing triggers a vivid memory of the faux-Colonial pewter tea set my grandmother, and quite possibly yours, displayed for decades but never used.
The piece stands alone in the center of a Nasher gallery, its dim reflectiveness slowly drinking in the pictures on the walls around it. This separate but ephemerally connected placement is apt. Escobar's surfboard is one of just a couple of pieces in People Get Ready—a new exhibit showing off the contemporary collection the museum has amassed in the last twelve years—that was acquired by the old Duke University Museum of Art, an ad hoc space on campus, before Rafael Viñoly's fancy turtle-shaped building opened in 2005.
But while the piece is an outlier, its implicit critique of colonial rapine is consonant with the contemporary collection that has put The Nasher on the art-world map—a collection strong in overlooked or under-represented artists of the "global South," especially the African diaspora, and teeming with volatile issues of race and class, place and taste.
The piece's inclusion also underlines the curatorial acumen of Trevor Schoonmaker, the Nasher's founding contemporary (and now, chief) curator, who masterminded the exhibit. It already gets a lot of mileage on the chance to see new acquisitions for the first time. One showstopper is "'The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born' Might Not Hold True for Much Longer" by Nigerian-American artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, which combines gorgeous painting and collage-like photo transfers to visualize the feeling of living in two worlds.
But in carefully choosing and arraying a fraction of The Nasher's holdings, Schoonmaker incites an already voluble collection to speak more eloquently than the sum of its parts. In this regard, viewers will be reminded of his landmark exhibit Southern Accent, from which People Get Ready cops a couple of moves: Jeff Whetstone's snake-handling video and Jim Roche's self-portraits in Floridian wilderness face each other again, locked in a quietly rapturous rural-mystic dialogue.
"There's no real theme driving this, but it should be seen as a snapshot of our approach," Schoonmaker told the INDY during a tour of the exhibit. Still, he likes echoes and connections to cascade between nearby pieces in his shows—see how Genevieve Gaignard's Cindy Sherman-like stagings of race and class archetypes reverberate around a preceding work by Carrie Mae Weems—and so each gallery at least has a valence, if not a theme.
Every piece carries some political payload, but one gallery in particular is ground zero for protest and provocation. Nina Chanel Abney's towering "Hobson's Choice," which she painted during her Nasher exhibit last year (the rising Chicago-born artist's first solo museum show), lights up the gallery with incandescent graphic design and pugilistic figuration. "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around," Hank Willis Thomas's Southern Accent standout, is back, using dull mirrors to implicate viewers in charged scenes from the civil rights movement. And Lyle Ashton Harris's photograph "Brotherhood, Crossroads and Etc." is a searing time capsule of taboo-busting nineties identity politics. Two nude African-American men kiss while one presses a gun to the other's chest, grounded in the colors of pan-African identity.
"It's not nearly as alarming today as it was for people to see this on the wall in ninety-four, but it's still really pertinent to this moment we're in," Schoonmaker explains. "Now, thank god, these issues are at the fore. [Harris] and others were presenting this when they weren't."
One piece here particularly demonstrates how sharp curation doesn't just show us art, but teaches us how to read it, which is especially important regarding the abstract and conceptual. In a different setting, this old-fashioned school desk made of chalkboard erasers might strike us as a beautiful, skillful kitsch object. But its surroundings prime us to receive Gary Simmons's ineffable messages about African-American history and erasure. It's also no accident that Schoonmaker chose it during an era of rampant school shootings.
"We're based in the American South, so we want to have a strong foothold in our locality, but with themes that connect anywhere in the world," Schoonmaker says.
The new acquisitions throughout the exhibit are beacons of this strategy, favoring artists who combine sweeping geopolitical vision with profoundly personal, often playful sensibilities.
Yun-Fei Ji's Bosch-like flood elegy "The Ba-Don Wonder Cannot Believe What He Sees" speaks as much to New Orleans as China. Maria Berrio, a Colombian artist based in New York, beautifully depicts a metaphor for migration in diaphanous handmade paper in "Syzygy," which she made for Prospect New Orleans last year, a big art-world to-do that Schoonmaker guest-directed. Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi emblazons circular saw blades—tools that both create and destroy—with Arabic script quoting Muhammad and the Quran. Henry Taylor's "Hammons meets a hyena on holiday," painted two years ago, is dense with laugh-cry art-historical references to conceptual artist David Hammons's seminal snowball-selling performance and Pieter Hugo's photos of Nigeria's itinerant "hyena men." As the beast sidles up to an alarmed-looking Hammons, it's hard to project anything fair or kind into its big, foamy grin.
And don't miss Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's Jasper-Johns-baiting map of the U.S., with each state painted a slightly different shade of white, interspersed with newspaper clips like "By 2030, this country will be brown again." For The Nasher, the piece breaks collecting ground in Native American contemporary art, a sadly but predictably neglected field that is just receiving its first major exhibit in Crystal Bridges, Arkansas, in October.
If The Nasher's collection is at the forefront of art's future, it also doesn't neglect its past. People Get Ready includes "Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum," a missing link in the stylistic formation of Kerry James Marshall, an important painter of African-American life and interrogator of racial stereotypes.
"This painting was unknown because he'd given it to two friends in the early eighties," Schoonmaker explains. "He hadn't signed it, and he made the frame himself. It was never photographed or exhibited. To have that missing nugget, the art-historical work that people want to go back to and think about how he created his aesthetic, it's great for us as a teaching institution."
Schoonmaker and The Nasher had an especially close relationship with Barkley L. Hendricks, bringing him renewed mainstream recognition before his death last year. The influence of the painter's life-size portraits of African Americans on today's leading artists is writ large in a gallery where his incredibly textured "Brenda's Sister, Barbara Jean" is on loan (we've seen all the museum's Hendricks holdings fairly recently). It presides over works by presidential portraitists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald as well as up-and-coming Houston native Robert Pruitt's "Mama." With striking draftsmanship in charcoal and conté crayon, Pruitt incarnates a dizzying diasporic constellation in one casually seated figure. Her shirt features one of Hendricks's most famous paintings, 1969's "Lawdy Mama." Her head is covered with a hood referring to Sankore mosque, a fifteenth-century scholarly center in Mali, capped with a Yoruba headdress honoring women. (You can see one like it in the museum's African gallery.)
But the biggest revelation is easy to miss. While Hendricks was creating his iconic oils, he was also making intimate works on paper that were hardly seen outside his inner circle until a show by Hendricks's New York gallerist, Jack Shainman, this year. They're wonderful: sparely colored, sardonic little arias combining drawing and stamped typography quoting Dragnet and Buddy Miles. Hendricks's painted figures assert their life force so strongly we almost forget about him, but here, we see his hand at work and his thought at play more directly than ever before.
The title People Get Ready spans the civil-rights-era Curtis Mayfield song and the later reggae hit by Bob Marley, a shorthand for the kind of soulful, contentious global exchange on which The Nasher has built its collection, which spills beyond the bounds of this exhibit. Southern Lens, a complementary show of newer photography, draws you into the historical galleries, where the contemporary has begun a quiet infiltration, carrying the present's protest into the past.
Fred Wilson's "Colonial Collection" now subtly comments on the Arts of Africa Gallery. A Wiley balances the pale portraits in the European Gallery. Pedro Lasch mourns in the Art of the Americas gallery. This willingness to confront the exploitative history and problematic structures of historical art is indicative of the bold, unrestful, progressive vision that Schoonmaker, fellow curator Marshall Price, and director Sarah Schroth have steadily pressed forward.