How is Blackness performed? Most African American contemporary artists will admit in confidence that they are often expected to perform their Blackness for the power players of the art mainstream, regardless of their choice of artistic medium. Artists working in two dimensions such as Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, and Wangechi Mutu have gained currency by creating work that makes the construction of black identity its subject. Sculptors such as Rodney McMillian and Kamau Amu Patton have garnered acclaim by merging the formalist concerns of minimalism with a black (and Black) material palette. Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art at Grey Art Gallery is the first of a two-part exhibition originating at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston [the second is at the Studio Museum of Harlem] that addresses the history of black performance art since the 1970s. Blackness is evidently performed in these works, but whether there is truly such a thing as black performance remains in question.
Touchstones of the black performance history described by curator Valerie Cassel Oliver include Senga Nengudi’s RSVP (1975), a series of choreographed events she created in collaboration with fellow artist Maren Hassinger in which Hassinger’s body activates sculptures made from nylon stockings manufactured in “black” skin tones. Nengudi’s work operates as an African American Arte Povera in which mundane materials are invested with the experiences of common people, their abjectness an echo of disenfranchisement and poverty. Her medium, stockings, is a material that emulates the skin of black women while offering them an elusive promise of upward mobility and social acceptance. Her sculptures recall the work of Eva Hesse in their pendulous, organic abstract forms, acted upon by gravity so as to be in a constant state of tension. Nengudi rose to national prominence via 2012’s Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at the UCLA Hammer Museum (which traveled to MoMA PS1). Here, her work is performed on scheduled dates by Hassinger and other dancers. Absent their bodies, as sculpture it is most effective when the viewer has the memory of her more ambitious installations in the earlier exhibition.
Another 1970s black feminist instigator is Adrian Piper, whose Mythic Being (1973) fused questions of Blackness, masculinity, and public space as she impersonated a black man in patrician Cambridge, Massachusetts. This work, which tested boundaries of social anxiety and privilege, was removed from the exhibition at the artist’s request (a circumstance I will skip over here to address in depth in my Hashtags column on December 2). Piper’s intersectional position as a mixed-race woman impersonating a black man gets at the core issue faced by Radical Presence—whether a construct of black performance can hold when the construction of Blackness is understood in its full and messy complexity. For the most part, the exhibition at Grey Art Gallery frames Blackness according to the oppositional politics of identity, establishing a fixed position from which to argue for the significance of black performance art but falling short of a truthful representation of the black experience.
Pope.L’s Eating the Wall Street Journal (2000), which he re-created for the Grey Art Gallery installation, is an example of this kind of oppositional Blackness in action. The artist spent several days chewing and regurgitating pages of the titular newspaper while perched atop a toilet on an elevated platform, washing the pulp down with milk and ketchup, and expectorating it onto the walls and floor of the gallery. The scatological implications of this action combined with the literal ingestion of Whiteness make this work the clear front-runner for the most confrontational expression of the black experience on view. However, the work’s effectiveness is limited to its shock value, which wears off quickly for an audience accustomed to the extremism of 1980s and ’90s performance art.
For the most part, this reviewer is restricted to understanding the work in its form as gallery objects, as I was only able to experience one live performance, Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Devotion (2013). In this performance, Hancock appeared blindfolded, wearing headphones, as a larger-than-life presence he calls “the Mound,” who was spoon-fed various colors of Jell-O by a slim, fashionable young white woman. Each serving of Jell-O would be rewarded with a verse of song taken from the spirituals that Hancock learned as a child, which the young assistant would then repeat to an older white woman emerging from within the Mound who would in turn transmit the verse to the audience. Rather than congeal into a transformative experience, the event was bewildering in the way of much de-skilled performance art but with an added racial twist. What was Hancock trying to say by enlisting these two white women of different generations to be his conduits? Did he expect that they would read as extensions of the audience, which was actually largely black and mixed-race? Was he making a comment about the role of white women as go-betweens in the struggle for civil rights? Once the performance was over and it was revealed that the women were an assistant at his gallery and the director of the Grey Art Gallery, the questions persisted. Were these women engaged simply because they were available to Hancock, or because he wished to comment on race relations in the sphere of the visual arts? The foregrounding of their Whiteness in a space devoted to Blackness seemed unlikely to be incidental, although documentation from the performance at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston would suggest that it was. These nagging questions remained inscrutable, and the work offered little by way of insight.
Artists of a younger generation take a more irreverent approach to the question of race. In the photo series Negerhosen2000/The Travel Albums (2003), Jean-Ulrick Désert modeled lederhosen custom-made in a color approximating the tone of white skin at various sites throughout Germany. The artist’s dark skin against the “nude-colored” lederhosen was an inversion of the traditional image of a white-skinned German in black or brown leather. Handwritten notes described the reaction of each individual or group with whom he interacted and took a picture. Some were dismayed by his appearance, others entertained, and a few recognized the social commentary in his actions. Sur Rodney (Sur)’s video Free Advice (July 6, 2008) (2008), a collaboration with Hope Sandrow, shows the artist set up by the side of a rural American highway with a table, an empty chair, and a sign reading “Free Advice.” Occasionally, passers-by stop their cars to take advantage of this opportunity, and Sur makes an effort to dispense his advice with thoughtfulness and respect. The questions can be self-serving, as when a young South Asian American man asks for advice on how to dump his girlfriend without having to feel bad as a consequence. These moments problematize the issue of race relations: People set aside their conditioned mistrust of African American men and lay out their personal baggage for Sur, who then takes up the caretaker role that black Americans have had to maintain at the other end of the social spectrum.
Kalup Linzy takes the queer sensibility of Désert and Sur to a histrionic extreme in Conversations wit de Churen II: All My Churen (2003). Enacting a dramatic narrative in the style of a soap opera or telenovela, Linzy’s multiple personae express desperation, desire, and ambition in the vernacular of southern blacks from the lower socio-economic spectrum. Linzy portrays all the characters in his female-driven narratives, and is especially partial to the archetype of a young woman with little education but big dreams of stardom and romance. While Linzy draws on the experiences of poor southern blacks and the vernacular of working-class serial television in his videos, Hennessy Youngman (Jayson Musson) plays directly to the art world. Embodying a hipster rapper in the vein of Ali G, Musson’s comical videos address art history, contemporary art institutions, and the art market with a racial undercurrent and a sardonic tone. Both artists have been embraced by the art mainstream, leading this reviewer to wonder whether art that is granted permission to transgress by social elites can truly be transgressive.
Ultimately, there are many strong works in the exhibition, but there is little in this survey that is both exceptional and under-recognized. Many of the lesser-known artists are represented with works of moderate accomplishment, while the standouts are generally from well-known names. Given that the contemporary art world has already embraced so many of the leaders of black performance art, it is hard to see why the racial classification is necessary or pertinent. It would be hoped that the much larger second part of the exhibition at the Studio Museum will respond to this question more directly.
Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art is on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery through December 7, 2013, and at the Studio Museum of Harlem through March 9, 2014.