From our partners at Art Practical, today we bring you a review of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Author Brian Karl notes: “The urgent need to collect and re-present this work—not in a static archive but in a living arena—stems from the continuing conditions of marginalization, oppression, and worse that black people have suffered over so many generations, from the Middle Passage to the present moment.” This article was originally published on July 7, 2015.
Radical Presence, a survey of African American performance art curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, has come to San Francisco. The featured works are all distillations and/or documents of performances that have ended up in, or have been adapted for, a gallery setting; an exceptionally robust program of related live performances runs concurrently. The earliest work is Pond (1962) by Fluxus cofounder Benjamin Patterson. The most recent pieces date from 2015, several of them created or re-created for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ iteration of the show.
The exhibition presents a substantial and striking set of takes on race in both the art world and society more generally. These are serious matters. That said, many of the artists adopt playful, even lighthearted approaches, often forcing visitor engagement through destabilizing strategies. “Playfulness” thus becomes a tactic akin to that of the tricksters and shamans who perform criticality in so many cultures—either in intense moments of crisis or in a more ongoing fashion. It is also similar to how masters of Zen and jujitsu trip up potentially worthy students as wake-up calls or as lessons to combat placid acceptance of the status quo.