Sunday, February 9, 2014

30 Americans at the Contemporary Arts Center

30 Americans is an exhibition that, by its very existence, raises all sorts of questions. Who are these African-American artists and why are they exhibited as a group? It helps to know that these works were chosen by Mera and Don Rubell for their collection, itself a kind of who's who sampler of leading contemporary artists, and that they epitomize a specific genre. In a nutshell, they illustrate how modern American artists who happen to be black work within the paradoxes of being who they are, and doing what they do, in America today. Recent black art tends to be more nuanced, yet no less visceral, than it was in the past so it's no surprise that irony is a constant, or that sentiments can seem over the top. The challenge is to handle the outrageous deftly, and these artist know how to do it.

The late Robert Colescott is the acknowledged granddaddy of the tribe. His parents moved from Nola to California before he was born, but his roots resurface in Sunset on the Bayou, top, where black folk ponder hard questions of identity against a cartoonish backdrop of the Louisiana Purchase. If Colescott, Jean-Michel Basquiat (Bird On Money, above) and David Hammons represent tradition, successors manage to find new ways to be inventively subversive as we see in Kalup Linzy's mock soap opera videos in which he plays gender bending roles, or Mickalene Thomas' satirical paintings depicting kitschy interpretations of black female sexuality, or Kara Walker's mock-Victorian paper cutout depictions of the elegant depravity of antebellum plantation life. More recent trends appear in Kehinde Wiley's lushly painted black pop culture figures transposed into baroque settings formerly associated with European aristocracy which, leavened with the figurative provocations of Iona Rozeal Brown (Sacrifice #2, above left) and Xaviera Simmons' One Day and Back Then, below, suggest a cumulative effect like a raucous hall of mirrors where stereotypes are often wildly exaggerated and no one escapes the darkly expressionistic humor so often implicit in these works. Overall, it's a great show that graphically illustrates the cognitive dissonance that ensues when sensitive artists try to make sense of a world where superficial labels too often trump complex individual realities. ~Bookhardt

30 Americans: Group Exhibition Featuring Art by Leading African-American Artists Over 30 Years, through June 15, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805 Left: One Day and Back Then by Xaviera Simmons