Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Arousing Desire in Post Black America: Mickalene Thomas’s Tête-à-Tête

Tête-à-Tête, Curated by Mickalene Thomas at Yancey Richardson

July 12 to August 24, 2012
535 West 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues,
New York City, 646 230 9610

Clifford Owens, Anthology (Jacolby Satterwhite), 2011 © Clifford Owens, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery
Clifford Owens, Anthology (Jacolby Satterwhite), 2011 © Clifford Owens, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

In “Post Black America” can an all-black art exhibition still bring novelty to the artistic discourse, especially when the artworks solicit consideration for an arguably exhausted topic – what does the black body symbolize in contemporary society?  Before answering this question, let’s recall the most comprehensive and perhaps infamous iteration of the concept:  Thelma Golden’s 1994 Whitney exhibition, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. The contemporaneity and symbolic character of O. J. Simpson and Rodney King ensured the theme’s gravitas and relevance, in excess and when contrasted with present day representations of black masculinity e.g. Air Force One, it is evident that times have surely changed.

That said, in 2012, an all-black show with an all-black focus can still facilitate provocative and relevant debate, especially with so acclaimed a curator as Mickalene Thomas and featuring an artist of such unflinching socio-political determination as LaToya Ruby Frazier, a stand-out in this year’s Whitney Biennial.  The exhibition is dominated by portrait photography from both African and American Artists: Derrick Adams, Frazier, Jayson Keeling, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, Clifford Owens, Mahlot Sansosa, Malick Sidibe, Xaviera Simmons, Hank Willis Thomas and Mickalene Thomas herself rounds out the group exhibit with her own authentic and conceived Polaroids. The title, tête-à-tête, denotes a private conversation, with implications of a candid encounter, and yet the exhibition does not, to quote Jean Baudrillard, “mournfully shoulder the burden of representation.”  The lure to defend or legitimize the black body has given way to the demands of contemporary pathology – the spectacle of the image.  As such, the show glows with vivacious enthusiasm: golden brown, deep-mahogany, and sable skin is presented with arousing desire and in high definition.

The exhibition’s foremost portraits confront the viewer with the gaze of a homo-erotized male: Clifford Owens’ Anthology (Jacolby Satterwhite). The artist commissioned instructional text from various black American artists, exercising carte blanche to interpret the submitted texts which comprised the bases for a series of arresting and authoritative performances at MoMa PS1 last winter.  This performative “score” (Owen’s term) is presented as a print in which the upper two-thirds contain the void of a bare white wall while Owens places himself in the lower third, his dark body fully nude but partially concealed by flowing white linen and sprawled across a bed in the manner of countless historical muses.  Though presented as an instrument for sexual pleasure, Owens’s face exudes a palpable indifference to this objectification. The simple but richly layered and historically engaged image touches the exotic “celebration” of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book (1988) and scrapes the abject protest of Lyle Ashton Harris’s Construct #10  (1989).

Malick Sidibé, Nuit du 31 Dêcembre, 1966/2002. © Zanele Muholi, Courtesy of the Artist, Jack Shainman Gallery + Yancey Richardson Gallery
Malick Sidibé, Nuit du 31 Dêcembre, 1966/2002. © Zanele Muholi, Courtesy of the Artist, Jack Shainman Gallery + Yancey Richardson Gallery

This salacious image is counter-balanced by cerebral works that continue the investigation of performance and collaboration, conveyed through diverging motifs: mother and child, couples, and shadows of the self. In Nuit du 31 Dêcembre (1966/2002) Malian artist, Malick Sidibé presents a modestly sized black and white gelatin silver print that captures a group of fully-dressed party-goers. This seemingly authentic and spontaneous photo depicts a quiet and ordinary human story, one that wades in the mind deeply and resolutely for it paradoxically contradicts standard depictions of “celebration” while still confirming to its conventions.

The photograph from Xaviera Simmons’ closes the exhibit with the same vibrancy with which it commenced.  Her piece investigates the myth of the landscape and the body through implications of fractured and loaded narratives.  In Untitled (Pink), 2008 a pigment print, the artist performs the role of the female protagonist whose voluminous afro carries associations of seventies insurrectionist Angela Davis.  The female figure stands in a fluorescent green patch of land, overgrown by dense forest and tangled vegetation. The character wears an haute couture, flamingo colored dress fashionably tailored to expose her breast. With accuracy and force the chic warrior princess swings a long thin branch in the direction of what can best be described as an ominous and animated mound of vegetation whose sculptural contours bring to mind…a large gorilla?  The image is saturated with textured meaning, sophisticated absurdity and aesthetic pleasure.

The most relevant works in the exhibition not only present the black body but point specifically to the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and history. Despite the overall celebratory nature and consumability of tête-à-tête there is still something of “the shock of the new” at play here, the historical discomfort that accompanied the rise of modern art.  The black body alone provides the key ingredient for this shock and when combined with contemporary society’s obsession with the spectacular image with all its connotations of glamour and desirability, a peculiar tension is created.   In a system of exchange-value the work in tête-à-tête simply brings the white or non-black body face-to-face with its inverse — the “other”.  But, to paraphrase Emmanuel Levinas, the other is an unknowable object and cannot be made into an object of the self.  Thus, this exhibit joyfully presents a condition without remedy—the black body.

Xaviera Simmons, Untitled (Pink), 2008 © Xaviera Simmons, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery
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