I came to the Gagosian Gallery a week before the survey of Basquiat’s art was to end because a good friend had invited me. Familiar with his signature three pronged crown, his locked high-top fade and pseudonym/tag SAMO, I did not know Basquiat as an artist but as an icon. (The diversity––in all aspects of the word––of the visitors in the museum spoke to how much of an icon Basquiat is. Plus, it was free.) So I walked into the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea with the hope of (and maybe sense of entitlement to) being blown away. I was blown away but not by his being an idol. I was moved by what his art seemed to reflect, a down-to-earth-ness, a worldliness that drove him dapple and dive into many things with constant awareness of time and space.
Pretty, charismatic, young and Black, Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in 1960 in New York where he died in 1988. Basquiat was prolific. With over fifty paintings on display at the Gagosian, the survey of his work only made up a small fraction what the art produced both inside and outside the eight-year span when the “art world” recognized his work.
When I saw his work the words that came to mind were consumption, anger, vulnerability, and jazz. His art performs. It really does. It is loud. My friend and I wanted that loudness to materialize sonically. We imagined setting the exhibit to a soundtrack and played with idea of trying songs on a second walk through of the galleries. It didn’t go through because there were so many rooms. The fifty plus works in the gallery were donated from private and public collections. There was no wall text, so I did not get a sense of the years in which each piece was created. Instead, the titles and information of each piece was kept in lamented packets (I felt like there were only four. There were at least one hundred people in the gallery.)
I love his anger. He draws and it is with the sureness of child. I was not there in the eighties, but I know it made for some interesting times. The emergence out of the Cold War, the climb of neoliberalism and new way of being in the world had arrived. Globalism and with it the rise of pluralism and multiculturalism without addressing racism or race politics created interesting implications for commodity, property, production and consumption. I felt like Basquiat used bricolage to respond to these changes and topics. His use of the copyright symbol also seems to address these subjects as well.
I really admire Basquiat’s use of written text. Firstly he uses different languages such as Latin, Spanish, English, creole, and French. He also crosses out his scrawled text making you pay close attention.
Basquiat was concerned with Black male iconography. His works featured references to or depictions of icons such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sugar Ray Robinson, Miles Davis and Marcus Garvey. (Where are the women?)
Kara Walker: THE NIGGER HUCK FINN PURSUES HAPPINESS BEYOND THE NARROW CONSTRAINTS OF YOUR OVERDETERMINED THESIS ON FREEDOM - DRAWN AND QUARTERED BY MISTER KARA WALKERBERRY, WITH CONDOLENCES TO THE AUTHORS
Kara Walker is an artist best known for her huge black paper silhouettes dealing with a variety of extremely graphic and intense themes such as race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity. Much of her work features illustrations of exaggerated facial features and bodies that speak to the caricatures ethnicity. Walker visually addresses many taboo subjects in the context of American slavery such sex, incest, rape, pedophilia, bestiality, etc. which bring up questions of consent. With these serious and harsh themes Walker still manages to make use of humor in her work by use of sarcasm and satire which play on stereotypes. With her being one of, if not the only notable artists using silhouettes as a medium for her art she has pretty much patented this style. A great deal of her work is simultaneously visual and literary. Walking through her exhibition was like reading a story which made it fun and captivating but also sickening.
Unfortunately, we were a bit disappointed in the Kara Walker exhibit at the Sikkema Jenkins Gallery. Not the content, (she’s obviously amazing *pronounced eye roll & hair flip*) but the space in which her art was displayed. In our humble opinion the silhouettes needed more space because of the content and size. Perhaps this was intentional on the part of the gallery… Maybe they thought this small taste of Kara Walkers work was enough to satiate folks… Or maybe they thought anymore would be too overwhelming to the public. Another intense part of the exhibit was the space itself. The ceilings were really high and Walkers silhouettes varied in size from life sized to larger than life, eye level, above eye level and below eye level and it wrapped around the entire room so the viewer might experience the feeling of inescapability while observing. Walkers art is arranged really tastefully in the gallery space, when you first walk in, the viewer sees a black wall with five striking white silhouettes depicting what looks like separate scenes of all kinds of debauched happenings. When the viewer looks a little to the left into the enclosed gallery space, the first thing they see before they even enter it is a black silhouette of a man with an ax dragging another human being off somewhere. From this view, you know you’re in for something extremely intense and it either reels you in or repels you.
One of the things we took from the show is the transgressive nature of the viewer watching these atrocities “occur” across the space of the gallery. As audience members, we become complacent in the violence we survey. Another note worthy detail is the fact that there is very little text and the audience enters into a visual conversation. The fact that we are able to recognize the “race” of Walker’s caricatured silhouettes points to common language her audience shares and rarely have the place to examine.
Along with Kara Walkers installation was the work of painter, Elizabeth Neel, whose work took of the front of the Sikkema Jenkins Gallery. Maybe it was happenstance, but we noticed most of the people coming into the gallery went almost directly back to the Kara Walker exhibit. This could have been because (assuming) Kara Walker is more well known or because her work is less abstract than Neels, either way it was interesting.
Some of the most compelling photographs by the late Gordon Parks originally published in Life magazine on March 8, 1968 are currently on exhibition in the Studio Museum of Harlem to celebrate the centennial of his birth. A Harlem Family 1967 documents the Fontenelle family of Harlem, NY in a gripping photo essay. These portraits bring light to many social issues, but the theme throughout this collection was poverty’s toll on Black America. Parks took on this project as a way to show the world why Black folks in America were filled with rage (rightfully) and taking on extreme measures to fight for civil rights. In the documentary, Family Portrait 2004, Parks notes, “the managing editor Philip Kunhardt at Life asked me why Black people were rioting in inner cities and big cities and I said, well I can live with a family for a week and show you that”. The heartbreaking depiction of the Fontenelle family in such extreme poverty did show America just that. This documentation of the destitute reality that the Fontenelle family faced everyday was not unique to Black America. Frigid winters in drafty apartments without heat, overcrowded homes (12 people living in the 2 bedroom Fontenelle apartment), not enough food to feed everyone, these are just some of the ways in which Gordon Parks so vividly captured the disparities in the quality of life for much of Black America at the time. This photo documentary in Life magazine was so eye opening, people actually donated money to the family. Enough money that Parks was able to build the Fontenelle’s a home on Long Island, NY. Unfortunately, building this one family a home did not fix the more fundamental issues of racism and poverty that were (and still are) widespread across America.
A Harlem Family was exhibited on the ground floor of the Studio Museum of Harlem in its own gallery space. It features thirty black and white portraits of the Fontenelle family all of which were published in the original March 8, 1968 Life magazine essay, but some have never been presented to the public. The portraits are hung on a brick colored wall. (Hmmm, wondering if this is strategic to mirror the Fontenelle tenement building… was the Fontenelle tenement building made of brick? Maybe we’re officially over thinking this blog.)
Born on November 30, 1912 Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks proved to be a pioneer. Parks was the first Black staff photographer and writer at Life magazine where he was employed for over twenty years. He was also the first Black filmmaker to direct and produce a major Hollywood film, The Learning Tree 1969. Honored with so many natural talents Parks was also a prolific composer and writer. Parks was the co-founder of essence magazine and one of the earlier contributors to the style of film known as Blaxploitation, he was also an activist and humanitarian. He died of cancer at age 93.
After a long and irritable day of stomping through four galleries and a cathedral we arrived at the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMa) free Friday night where we saw one half of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series. It was a treat. Part of the museums permanent collection, the series basically chronicles the mass migration of Blacks from the south to the north in search of better living conditions and opportunities in the industrialized cities of the north and west. The migration series has sixty panels in total. Only thirty were on display as MoMa shares the series with the Phillip Collection based in Washington, DC. (After prominent art dealer Edith Halpert arranged all sixty to be exhibited at her Downtown Gallery, there was a purchasing conflict between Alfred H. Barr, Jr. the director of MoMa and Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillis Memorial Gallery. The two settled on Barr acquiring the even-numbered panels and Phillips the odd.)
Jacob Lawrence was 23 when he completed The Migration Series then called The Migration of the Negro. Each panel is a numbered and accompanied by a caption written by Lawrence himself. The panels depict many of the factors pushing Blacks to migrate, under what conditions they migrated and what did they find in north and west. It is a great example of how the visuals arts are a formidable means of recording and teaching history. The Migration Series offer details about the migration that are often missed in our academic classes and courses. Who talks about the fact that white labor recruiters had a role in the migration as in Panel 28: The labor agent sent south by northern industry was a familiar presence in the Black communities? Who mentions how black news papers encouraged folks to migrate as in Panel 34? Or the role nature played in pushing folks from the south as in Panel 8? And not to mention, state efforts to keep Blacks in the south as in Panel 42?
The text accompanying the visual reads like a graphic novel or children’s book whose pages were ripped out and framed, some missing, and placed on a wall. When reading the panels, there is definitely an emotional pull that is not guided so much by sentimentality but a remembering even if you were not there. This lacking of sentimentality maybe due to what can be read as constraint. Each panel as with its two to three line caption has an economy. Lawrence was not trying to make a novel. Lawrence is sparse and minimal. He uses few colors. His palette is consistent at least across the thirty we viewed at the MoMA. He uses casein tempera, which makes the panels appear flat and dry. The contour and edges are sharp making the paintings look like colored drawings. He use of contrast is stark.
It would be awesome if we could see the entire sixty-panel series as some parts of the narrative felt missing. Some of the favorites include panel Panel 52: One of the most violent race riots occurred in East St. Louis and Panel 16: After a lynching, the migration quickened. Panel 16 is definitely a great example of the economy and constraint we mentioned earlier. Here, Lawrence does not specify or give detail to the lynching. He does not state or where (and lynchings during the World War I era were in great number). The restraining of detail of journalistic quality is reflected in the image which Robert Hughes adequately describes in American Visions (1997, p. 456): “When he painted a lynching, for instance, he left out the dangling body and jeering crowd: there is only bare earth, a branch, an empty noose, and the huddled hump of a grieving woman.”
You can find The Migration Series in the Painting and Sculpture I 1880s-1940s galleries on the fifth floor. The panels have a gallery room to themselves, which was a good move. To have such a narrative piece in the same room with non-narrative and non-serial works such as Frida Kahlo’s Fulang Chang and I or Paul Klee’s Portrait of an Equilibrist might have caused too much of a clashing effect.
Jacob Lawrence is from our experience the best represented African-American artist in the major museums. His art is featured and currently on display at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Whitney Museum of American Art in addition to the MoMa. It is almost tokenizing in a lot of ways. He is often the only African-American represented in a predominately white, male crowd. He was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His parents were part of the Great Migration, as his mother was from Virginia and his father was from South Carolina. The two met on their way north during the first wave. In 1930, at the age of thirteen Jacob Lawrence participated in the Harlem Art Workshop and was a student at the Harlem Community Art Center, where he studied Mexican muralists, Alain Locke’s ideas about art and learned under major contributors in the arts and education such as Charles Seifert and Augusta Savage who would latter help him get work on a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.
The Migration Series is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection (which rotates in and out) and is currently on display in the Painting and Sculpture I 1880s-1940s galleries on the fifth floor.
The capital is haunted by the mills, industrialism, environmental racism and capitalism. It is haunted by Levi add campaigns, lies of renewal and influx of “new” artist class of often white liberals, driving up propriety prices, illness and empty landscape…the capital is haunted by the outsides easy forgetfulness.
The Brooklyn Museum seems to make good on its mission of serving a diverse public as a “welcoming center for learning through the visual arts”. This is definitely felt when you look at its free first Saturday and Thursday Evening programming, as well as its $12.00 maximum suggested contribution, and of course its current exhibitions. Among its current exhibitions is LaToya Ruby Frazier: A Haunted Capital. In almost forty photographs, LaToya Ruby Frazier uses elements of portraiture and social documentary to display a personal narrative about her family and hometown of Braddock Pennsylvania, which is located just a few miles outside of Pittsburgh.
A Haunted Capital is a deeply intimate look at the current state and the history of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Braddock is considered by many to be a ghost town, a ruined city. It was once a city of prosperity. It was home to Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill (which was completed in 1875) and a place of great milestones in labor history. It was built to house laborers from the mills both in Braddock and throughout the Monongahela Valley. But with the U.S. steel industry crisis of the 1980s (which led to the federal and state government abandoning Braddock), the closing of mills and the moving of manufacturing overseas, Braddock experienced a ninety percent population drop. The town has fewer than 3,000 residents (at its peak it had 20,879), many who are elderly, struggling with illness, addiction and poverty, many of them African-American. Today, the mills’ main contribution to Braddock is its unemployment and pollution.
The exhibit itself sits in the Mezzanine Gallery on the 2nd floor. The gallery is long and rectangular. On the long walls hang Frazier’s forty or so photos. On the short walls is a ceiling to floor collage of found black and white photographs of or related Braddock, its space and people. The collaged walls act as book ends to Frazier’s work and effectively place Frazier’s photos as a narrative among many narratives. Each photo in the collage seems like a thumbnails on a website quietly waiting to be selected to reveal other narratives.
Frazier aims to tell a particular story, a more humanistic one, with less numbers. Very concerned with the personal and subjectivity in her photos, she likes taking pictures of folks and naming folks. She wants the viewer to see the photos and be able to identify with the subject. That said, the artist primarily focuses her lens on her grandmother, mother and self. Placing herself and family in front of the camera, she uses these women, belonging to three generations, to act as both a metaphor for the town and example of how space affects the body. Grandma Ruby, Mom and LaToya are all affected by illnesses related to the Braddock’s industrial history. But she does not merely just place her subjects in front of the camera; she narrates through text her intent behind many of her photographs, as with Grandma Ruby and Me. 2005and Shadow (From the Momme Portrait Series), 2008. Frazier’s narratives are very pointed she leaves little room for guessing. She is telling and in telling combating erasure, undoing a silencing, spotlighting the ignored.
Frazier’s photographs are a prime example of how the personal is political. Using black and white photography and realism, she seems to work in the spirit of both Gordon Parks (photo-journalism) and Carrie Mae Weems (creative narrative and portraiture) who was her professor at Syracuse. She uses these images to draw attention to larger social issues such as environmental racism and class. Each photo reads as a critique on capitalism and its lingering effects on people and spaces.
Frazier tells a couple of other stories in her photo documentary. One being this sadness and urgency of loss of the community hospital against the will of the residents who had been protesting its destruction. While this demolition was taking place Levi’s did an Ad campaign falsely advertising the city to sell their denim. This false image made the town look like something it was not. It tried to sell Braddock as an all American city when in fact it’s a very desolate, industrial, and completely forgotten by the government. This false representation was insidious and took the light away from the issues that the actual citizens of Braddock were facing in their town. Furthermore, this campaign occurs on the backdrop of gentrification, as the town’s current mayor works to revitalize its economy.
Other photographed subjects include the debris of Grandma Ruby’s carpet or Grandma Ruby’s doll collection, the U.S.S. Edgar Thompson Plant and the U.P.M.C. Braddock Hospital.
LaToya Ruby Frazier: A Haunted Capital is currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum though August 11, 2013.
We were first drawn to Ben Jones’s Shrine for the Spirit because of its colorful geometric shapes, which were assembled in a neat, rather digestible (read minimalist lol) way. It did not feel as though this was an art piece created in 1976. Unjustly, we sort of subconsciously refused to associate such vibrant color with the era that brought us dull-colored TV series such as M*A*S*H.
After color and shape, we noticed the body in Shrine for the Spirit. There was a head (or four heads), a torso and feet made abstract through dismemberment and (re)assembled. The aesthetic was Afrocentric (the masks, beaded necklaces on encircled torso, etc.). The masks and torso are not rounded but open in the back giving the illusion that this altarized body will wake up and step out from the wall. This effect is heightened by the fact the eyes on the masks seem gently closed. The close-up image of the man’s youthful face gives a humanizing effect on what could have otherwise been an artful assemblage of abstract items. The masks themselves are definitely an eye treat, striped, dotted and decorated with loud with fluorescent and metallic paints, their mouths slightly open with red stars on each lip. His use of wall reliefs are reminiscent of his more famous Black Face and Arm Unit (1971) which consisted of at least twenty-four decorated wall reliefs made from plaster casts of the artist’s arms and face. As some folks (such as Sharon Patton in African-American Art ) have done with Black Face and Arm Unit, the masks in Shrine for the Spirit could be read as a nod to ritualized body painting seen in masquerades, carnivals and rites of passage ceremonies throughout the Black Atlantic. On a similar vein, we definitely saw the piece as a depiction of spiritual action. We noted shrine is an altar, a cumulative project, a site of assemblage. Each segment in Shrine for the Spirit operated and felt as if it was its own altar, creating the sense that the artist pieced together multiple altars to make one. We also couldn’t ignore that the shrine is a house and that in using the body Jones was concerned with connecting the corporal with the spiritual, a very significant treatment of the Black body during the decade in which the piece was created up to now.
Through research we realized that Shrine for the Spirit was in fact, part of the exhibition Assembly Required: Selections from the Permanent Collection. (We came to see the exhibit on Gordon Parks on an empty stomach, so we missed some cues.) Organized by the Studio Museum of Harlem’s Assistant Curator Naima J. Keith, Assembly Required is comprised of photographs, drawings, sculptures and paintings from the Studio Museum’s permanent collection. The selected items were brought together with the aim of exploring “the ways in which certain works are dependent on site, and the viewer’s conceptual and perceptual experience of that locale through the artist’s intervention.”
Benjamin F. Jones (b. 1941) is a mixed-media African-American artist, printmaker and professor. His work has often combined cultural and spiritual symbolism from the African diaspora with political iconography from the American Civil Rights and Gay Rights movements. For more info on Ben Jones go here.
Ben Jones. Shrine for the Spirit, 1976. Photo by Elijah Black.
Currently on display at The Studio Museum in Harlem as part of the Assembly Required: Selections from the Permanent Collection exhibition which is up until June 30.