#access #institutions #race #class #performance #intersectionality
Two major New York exhibitions this winter have raised the question of access to contemporary art and museums in important and divergent ways. Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art at the Studio Museum in Harlem continues reframing the historical narrative to include African Americans, as begun in Part 1 at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. Mike Kelley’s sprawling retrospective at MOMA/PS1 (originated at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; traveling to MOCA, Los Angeles) similarly engages questions of identity and inclusion within the context of a white American artist’s experience of the world.
In my review of Radical Presence at Grey Art Gallery, I identified the absence of a cohesive vision of “black performance” that diverged substantively from the larger framework of post-conceptual performance art in terms of form rather than culturally specific content. This line of inquiry was inspired by the exhibition’s wall text, which asserted that, “Black performance has generally been associated with music, theater, dance, and popular culture,” and proposed to re-situate these practices within the visual-arts genre of performance. Why, I wondered, did curator Valerie Cassel Oliver not frame the show more forcefully as a reconsideration of performance-art histories that have tended to omit the contributions of black artists? Why did she locate the radical shift within the black community’s traditional framework for performance rather than use it to lay claim to the white-dominated narratives of conceptual and action-based art? At the time, it seemed unlikely to me that a significant number of black visitors unfamiliar with late twentieth-century performance art would be attending the exhibition in lower Manhattan. I assumed that audiences of any color would be contemporary art audiences experienced in the conventions of live art. Having now experienced the second part of the exhibition at the Studio Museum, I perceive that the question of what makes “black performance” black has taken a backseat to the question of what has historically rendered modern and contemporary art venues “white,” and that Cassel Oliver may have been trying to establish a point of entry to those who could be most likely to exclude themselves from the intended audience for her show.
Author David Osa Amadasun tackled this question recently in an article titled “‘Black People Don’t Go to Galleries’ – The Reproduction of Taste and Cultural Value.” Amadasun describes how every aspect of the museum-going experience, from institutional architecture to the politics expressed by exhibiting artists, to education programs aimed at audience diversification, is framed in such a way that visitors of color see themselves positioned on the outside. Some of this may be internalized microaggression, such that people of color imagine themselves to be out of place in these spaces of culture before any move has been made to actively exclude them. Much of it is structural, maintained by inherited systems of cultural display that originate in imperialist subjugation of non-Western peoples by Europeans and the simultaneous removal and exaltation of their cultural production.
Given this context, Cassel Oliver likely chose to frame the history of black performance in a way that would be familiar to black audiences rather than contemporary art audiences. However, by doing so she may be serving audiences at the expense of artists who deserve to be viewed as central to the historical narrative of live art from which they have been excluded due to their racial backgrounds. Also, while the general audience of color that Cassel Oliver appears to address is present at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which is located in a walking and shopping district in a majority-minority neighborhood, it is less in evidence at Grey Art Gallery, a downtown university gallery that draws students, tourists, and art patrons. The decision to split this exhibition into two separate venues for its New York run complicates and confuses the message as well as the form of the show, which suffers as a result.
That said, the second half of Radical Presence is a darker and more compelling show than the first. Works such as Wayne Hodge’s Negerkuss (Variation #1) (2011), Tameka Norris’ untitled performance (2013) involving painting the walls with her slit tongue and lemon juice, and Dave McKenzie’s Fight Club-inspired video Edward and Me (2000) all articulate the anger, pain, and internal conflict that African Americans continually experience despite the collective fiction of a “post-racial” paradigm. William Pope L., whose work at Grey Art Gallery I called “the clear front-runner for the most confrontational expression of the black experience,” shows a wholly different side of his practice at the Studio Museum, riffing on the role of the artist as academic in Another Kind of Love: John Cage’s Silence, by Hand (2013). In this work paying homage to John Cage’s 4’33” (1952), Pope L. stakes his claim to the modernist legacy of live art that Cassel Oliver’s curatorial narrative skirts.
Brown bodies also factor in the Studio Museum show in works by Papo Colo, Girl (Chitra Ganesh and Simone Leigh), and Xaviera Simmons. Colo’s Puerto Rican heritage is African, Hispanic, and indigenous, as are the politics of his work. Girl is a collaboration between a South Asian and an African American artist that explores the societal baggage borne by women of color who are frequently excluded from both feminist and racial-justice conversations. Xaviera Simmons turns the tables on cultural tourism, transforming herself from a Western tourist on a Sri Lankan train to a member of an impromptu community of locals by responding constructively to their discomfort with her difference.
An intersectional view of difference would suggest that locating it in race alone discounts equally significant factors of class, gender, education, sexual identification, and labor. Taking this view, it is possible to see MOMA/PS1’s monumental survey of Mike Kelley’s work as another meditation on difference and exclusion in the context of institutions. The setting of this show at a former public school could not be more apt, given that school is the primary site of trauma that Kelley revisits compulsively throughout his vast body of work. That trauma is paralleled in the artist’s experiences as a working-class hero in the spaces of high culture. Kelley’s art reads as a form of white-male identity politics in that he applies methodologies of re-creating social traumas and exaggerating those aspects of his persona that are perceived as most perverse and threatening by polite society, that characterize the work of his most confrontational peers among artists of color. Like the artists in Radical Presence, Kelley is primarily an artist working in performance, and like them, he disseminates embodied actions into sculpture, assemblage, painting, and installation.
Numerous works treat the architectures of schools as spaces of indoctrination and abuse. Day Is Done (2005-06), a large-scale, multi-channel video installation, restages photographs of extracurricular activities from a found high-school yearbook as performances of repressed trauma and occasionally of liberation. Each video is sited within a fabricated architecture, so as to impregnate built space with the social oppression it carries forth implicitly. Other works map the rooms of various schools, including Wayne High near Detroit, from which Kelley graduated, and CalArts, where he taught, according to their psychological import. While the works are often funny and occasionally sweet, it is clear that Kelley did not retain positive associations from his time in educational spaces.
He made his feelings of discomfort with the structural classism of art museums equally clear in a large installation, From My Institution to Yours (1987), now installed in PS1’s basement. Juxtaposing crude cartoony illustrations with wary texts, Kelley constructed a roped-off space replete with red carpet. This reified architecture is connected by a red ribbon to the depths of the museum, leading viewers to confront the barriers erected between themselves and the institution’s administrative staff. A large battering ram lays in front of a door marked “Employees Only,” dents and rust visible on the door’s surface. When this work was installed at LACMA in 1987, Kelley exhorted viewers to “Climb over the rampart. Batter down the door. Step across the line that separates brother and sister from brother and sister.” At PS1, that line of separation was enforced by one of dozens of African American museum guards enlisted to defend a hierarchy that places them firmly at the bottom. I asked the guard which person had been given the job of professionally battering the door. Was it him? He laughed. “I’d lose my job.” More likely it was members of the preparatory staff, freelance laborers who are mostly artists and mostly working-class, and whose symbolic battering represents a gesture of resistance thoroughly neutered by structures of exclusion.
The Kelley show is a Freudian funhouse, rife with meditations on failure, self-loathing, cruelty, and rage. His years in Los Angeles are made most tangible by his explorations of Hollywood’s dual nature as a dream factory and a sleazy flesh trade. His lifelong struggle with depression and his equally characteristic popular-culture obsessions come together in the Kandor works, which represent the novel union of Superman and Sylvia Plath. There is enough here to fill volumes with interpretation, and each reading of Kelley’s oeuvre says as much about the analyst as about the artist. The exhibition is a memorial as well as a retrospective, and the pain of curator Ann Goldstein (former Stedelijk Director, longtime MOCA curator and Kelley champion) over the artist’s 2012 suicide is palpable in the way the whole affair often feels like an undifferentiated display of the contents of a beloved but troubled uncle’s estate. The lack of distance leads to some questionable curatorial choices, but ultimately, that raw emotional core brings the show to life. Mike Kelley’s work continues to push buttons precisely because for all his success, he never forgot who he was or who the art markets or institutions were there to serve. Posthumously, his work continues to function as a lifeline for those of us who are compelled to participate in the systems of contemporary art even though they repeatedly push us away, knock us over, and kick us when we’re down.
Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art is on view at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York through March 9. Mike Kelley is on view at MOMA/PS1 through February 2.