An All Colored Cast, Hank Willis Thomas at Kayne Griffin Corcoran

An All Colored Cast, Hank Willis Thomas at Kayne Griffin Corcoran

Nestled in a small gated space on La Brea, Kayne Griffin Corcoran presents itself as more of a Hollywood garden party than a contemporary art gallery. You almost have to be “in the know” to know that art openings are taking place here. Known for having its own personal James Turrell installation, the gallery played host to “An All Colored Cast” (I laugh at the irony as I write), a solo exhibition by Hank Willis Thomas. This exhibition was the first for Thomas in Los Angeles.

You are welcomed into the property’s courtyard by the bright orange of A Suspension of Hostilities, 2019, a replica of the “General Lee,” car made famous by the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard”. I immediately wondered how the patrons would react upon first glance with the confederate flag being a centerpiece of the famed auto, (you know, since everyone is so political now and forget it was part of Americana at one point) but felt confident that once I got inside and walked around the show a bit more, I’d find clarity. 

I arrived a bit early after visiting other spaces in the area to find the exhibition empty. Guests to the gallery were tuned into the artist walkthrough of a concurrent exhibition by San Diego based artist Raul Guerrero titled “Sonora Desert: Flora, Fauna & Artifacts, on view in the adjacent room. I took the opportunity to spend time with the art from Thomas’ show, trying to gauge how I felt about them before other ideas of interpretation could corrupt my experience. The work presents itself in large abstract forms, taking on the likenesses of earlier creations by esteemed modern artists. I thought of Noah Davis’ 2013 exhibition “Imitation of Wealth”, where he duplicated works of modern contemporary artists in an attempt to disrupt the classism in the access to quality art. I had prior knowledge of the “secret” contained in these works, so I started to do a little digging. Using modern tools (my iPhone) to wipe away the surface and reveal the real jewels hidden in plain sight. 

The secret to Thomas’ installation was you had to direct light at the artwork to get the extra effect. The illumination of light would reveal the underlying piece of the artistic puzzle. Taking a flash photo probably worked best I thought, but that’s usually against the rules in art spaces. Since no one was around, and I wanted to see. Like, really see. Fuck it. Let’s do it. I can always apologize (if I get caught, of course).

The first artwork I walked up to was Field Day (Test Pattern), 2019, a large horizontal panel, divided equally with a spectrum of eight colors that are lined vertically, giving reference to the SMPTE color bars. These bars are a television test pattern for the NTSC video standard in North America. Flash. As I looked down at the phone, the bars magically became transparent and a new image appeared! “Holy shit! What is this?” I thought, “Let me try this again.” You know because iPhones do some weird shit. Flash. It happened again! 

What’s shown under the color bars was a still photo of a man in blackface in a suit, smiling and standing around a group of black people. Some also smiling, and others with looks of disappointment. The verticality of the color bars allows each part of the image to be analyzed, bookmarked and separated from the whole for further investigation. Seeing the image as eight separate parts allowed for many main characters, giving each subject a renewed visibility through the detachment.

The crowd then moved into the gallery where “An All Colored Cast” was on view. Thomas began to give his insight on the execution of the work, alongside team members who also contributed their experiences throughout the process. We gathered in the center in the space as Thomas kept instructing everyone to move closer. I’m guessing so that everyone could hear clearly and he wouldn’t have to yell.

An installation titled Not So Easy, 2019, featuring a disassembled Harley Davidson style chopper was spread across the floor alongside a helmet designed with the colors of America and a matching gas cap among the panoply of motorcycle parts. It was like the late stuntman, Evil Knievel had crashed into the gallery and took off before anyone could identify him. I saw the dismantling of the bike almost as a portrayal of the fabric of American values in need of a tune-up.

As Thomas introduced the exhibition, he gave the audience insight into his youth growing up. He waxed eloquently about the images he and his mother (Deborah Willis, a notable artist/photographer, and curator) enjoyed watching on television, which greatly informed his upbringing, and how Black Hollywood shaped the family’s evening entertainment as images like the “General Lee” car was a mainstay in their everyday programming. Thomas further explained that during the research for this show, his team discovered the show’s producers had nearly three hundred replicas of the car – as it was continuously damaged during “The Dukes of Hazzard” filming. 

The confederate flag has long been a symbol synonymous with a period of high racial animosity, but in “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show, it’s attached to the car of the hero in the story. I likened Thomas’ story of his childhood entertainment experience to that of James Baldwin, who articulated during a debate with William Buckley, his conflict with the image of Gary Cooper in traditional American Western film. Baldwin expressed cheering on the hero Cooper, only to realize that the Native American “villains”, could be a visual representation of himself in the eyes of his countrymen.

Thomas continued his dialogue with the audience and spoke to the inspiration for the exhibition.  He lamented the influence of the modern art masters and how they impacted the series. He mentioned artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol, and Josef Albers whose familiar style of abstract shape can be identified immediately in Thomas’s presentation. 

We gathered in front of Deep South (Red Diagonal), 2019, which pays homage to Ellsworth Kelly’s work Red Diagonal, 2007, a beautiful oil on canvas work that features a painted white square overlaid by another canvas painted bright red, conjoining the two panels creating a unified sculptural work. In Thomas’s interpretation, he uses UV print on retroreflective vinyl mounted on Dibond to achieve the result.

After a short explanation of the work, Thomas invited a member of his team to shed further light on the process of developing the series. She also instructed people to move closer (Were we really that far away?) and turn on a light source from their cameras, which would allow patrons to follow along and see first hand the results of the process. Sounds of enjoyment filled the room as the patrons were able to discover what was hidden beneath the surface of the artwork which added a new element and offered an entirely different perspective on its meaning. I was able to focus on the reactions of the guests as I previously experienced their shock and awe moment when I first encountered the “secret” behind the work. 

Thomas and associates collectively explained what the image reveals when light is shone onto Deep South (Red Diagonal), 2019. What it shows is a promotional still from the 1975 movie “Mandingo,” in which a white woman presents a very demonstrative face while clutching the rope that is tied to the waist of a slave named “Mede” as he looks on in displeasure. The “Red Diagonal” in this work is used as a point of focus as it highlights the key elements in the image, which are the looks on the faces of the subjects contained within. I was unaware of the film until I began writing this essay. I decided to watch “Mandingo” to understand the context of the image and how it could elevate my perspective. Suddenly,  I grasped the many ways that the image in this work profoundly affected how I perceived it.

Various ways of comprehending the visual ran through my brain. In one case, I saw it as the artist speaking to the recent growing interest in art by people of color, specifically significant works by Africans and African-Americans. Specifically, how art is essentially “roped up” or consumed by deep-pocketed art dealers and collectors, looking to stay ahead of the latest flipper. If you’ve paid minimal attention in the last five years, you’d understand that “black art” has become a commodity for collectors and museums alike. These entities present themselves as lost sheep who are looking to make “corrections” while updating e their holdings to include contemporary black artists. I continue to laugh at this thought. 

The film “Mandingo” still represented to me the proverbial auction block that black artists have been on lately, gaining roster spots with dealers that traditionally looked past them. Now represented by these galleries, these new “prizefighters” mostly from a cast of people of color take on the task of winning fights (having strong exhibitions and sales), and breeding (being able to bring in other profitable friends) making a worthy investment for these institutions and galleries just as “Mede” was made to do as a slave in the film. Only when investigative articles are written, and tough questions are answered about art dealings, does any of this truth gain clarity. 

Could the artist also be insinuating that the inaccessibility to gallery spaces, media, and supportive patrons have suppressed black artists during this period? Hopefully, that’s something the artist will clarify as literature is developed for this exhibition.

The gallery attendant provided the guests with pairs of glasses, with lights attached, allowing viewers to walk the exhibition hands-free. Simultaneously, allowing those without iPhone lights and other devices to participate. Since I had already experienced the reveal of the process on my own time, I wanted to marvel at the real-time responses from the patrons. When the lights were turned off, the viewers became forensic scientists, using the provided tools to enhance their visibility, parsing through each artwork with finer detail. 

As Thomas guided us through the exhibition, he reiterated that the images reveal themselves under a direct light source like the Deep South art piece. As each work became the center of concentration, you could see the image come to life with the lights aimed in the same direction. When the work An All Colored Cast, 2019 was illuminated, I realized that Thomas made reference to Andy Warhol’s famed Ethel Scull 36 Times, 1963. This work featured Ethel Scull, the wife of art collector and magnate Robert Scull, with thirty-six different portraits, all with varying color backgrounds. What was really cool about this work was that it included photos of some of Hollywood’s elite stars, again allowing them to “share the stage” through the color division – just like the earlier work.

As we walked toward “People Just Like To Look At Me” (Spectrum IX), 2019 (probably my favorite piece in the exhibition), Thomas enlightened the guests on some of the backstories of the actors and actresses of Black Hollywood. I compare this work to that of Mickalene Thomas’ 2016 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles titled “Do I Look Like A Lady?”. Her exhibition featured beautifully abstracted forms made from acrylic mirror and wood panel, where leading black women like Diana Ross would be memorialized. I could almost see that exhibition almost as an external precursor to “An All Colored Cast”, gaining inspiration from the viewing perspective of his mother, Deborah Roberts. Especially with Mickalene Thomas’s presentation, curating books, magazines, furniture, and carpets, recreating a black family living room atmosphere.

The sea of light focused on him acted as a spotlight would following a stand-up comedian doing their routine. Or police officers shining their high-beams of white light from their cars into the faces of young black men. Let’s keep it positive and go with the former. Thomas mentioned how many were forced into wearing blackface and portraying “Coon Characters” just to have the opportunity to grace the big screen. And by doing this, it opened up doors for the entertainers we love and enjoy today.

After the walk-through, I got a chance to speak with Thomas about my takeaways from the show. The forensic approach to fully understanding the series encourages the viewer to do a little more to get the intended result. I wondered if he and his team thought of that approach during the conception of the project. To my surprise, he was very interested in my perspective, as his team employed that type of thinking when creating the project, but without using that exact term.

At the end of the day, my question is, What are we shining a light on? If we were to take a deeper look beyond what’s on the surface, will we find the truth? Reality? Will we find change when we shine a light on these replicated situations? Maybe. But if I had to bet, it would be just another rerun. Another “General Lee” replacement vehicle for the hero.


Metropolis: A Snapshot of Art Making in Los Angeles

Metropolis: A Snapshot of Art Making in Los Angeles

ArtAboveReality is pleased to present “Metropolis: A Snapshot of Art Making in Los Angeles”, a group survey highlighting eighteen contemporary artists in the city of Los Angeles. What really defines a living and working artist in Los Angeles? What does an artist look like? How are artists able to manage expectations with new visibility? This exhibition takes an anthropological and sociological view on the creative practices of artists of color in the city. This re-engagement with artists and their workspaces allow the viewer a firsthand view of the creative process. This exhibition is dedicated to the loving memory of former California African American Museum Curator Vida L. Brown.

Nov 16 — Dec 10, 2019

Bruce Lurie Gallery, Los Angeles

Exhibition Information

Artists In The Exhibition:
Chelle Barbour, Sharon Barnes, April Bey, Steven Cogle, Adrienne DeVine, Charles Dickson, June Edmonds, Al-Baseer Holly, Pamela Smith-Hudson, Overton Loyd, Man One, Michael Massenburg, Norman “NOMZEE” Maxwell, Sam Pace, Duane Paul, Wayne Perry, Miles Regis, and Jamaal “Hasef” Tolbert.


The Bruce Lurie Gallery was established in the early 1980s in New York’s East Village. Bruce Lurie has a history of launching emerging artists into the main-stream art scene, and in his early career gave Jean-Michel Basquiat his first show as requested by Leo Castelli. The gallery has since relocated to Los Angeles’ Culver City Arts District. The gallery has a particular focus on establishing emerging to mid-career artists specializing in cutting edge street art, abstract minimalism, and pop art, with an additional recent focus on photography. The Bruce Lurie Gallery features a wide range of monumental sculptors as well.

Metropolis: A Snapshot of Art Making in Los Angeles is located at 2736 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048. The exhibit will be on view to the public from November 16th through December 14th. Stay updated with the exhibition on social media via the hashtags #ArtAboveReality, #MetropolisLA. Please contact for more information. Exhibit information available upon request. All images are subject to copyright.


Soul Of A Nation, Heart of A Community

Soul Of A Nation, Heart of A Community

“No other field is closed to those who are not white and male as is the visual arts. After I decided to be an artist, the first thing I had to believe was that I, a black woman, could penetrate the art scene, and that, further, I could do so without sacrificing one iota of my blackness or my femaleness or my humanity” – Elizabeth Catlett

With the rise of attention in works by women, artists of color, and the LGBT community, museums have seemed to pivot in a new direction – prioritizing inclusiveness – in an attempt to “correct” the underrepresentation of such artists in its programming. “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983” featuring the artwork of pioneering black artists, poets, and photographers opened at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles on March 23rd, 2019. This is the exhibition’s third stop in the United States and first on the West Coast – after originating at the Tate Modern in London in 2017. The exhibition celebrates the artists and the movements they helped to institute in the two decades after 1963 when the Civil Rights movement started to gain steam.

Reminiscing through photos from my visit to its installation at the Tate Modern, I attempted to re-familiarize myself with the retrospective by trekking back through the works, re-living some of the feelings I had at first sight. As I browsed through the display, I pondered how the exhibition would be received by the city and its artistic community. How would the museum curators arrange its display inside the institution? The Broad Museum’s plush galleries and modern architectural design have a way of rejuvenating the excitement of the artwork on view. It has the uncanny ability to reintroduce work to its contemporary audiences with newness as if these works were just acquired from the artists’ studios moments before they furnished the walls. I was excited to see if this magic would lend itself to the newest exposition, allowing the artists themselves to relive the moments and actions that spawned these objects. But what in the exhibition would be “adjusted” before it made its Tinseltown debut?

It’s always thought-provoking to see what works are chosen for display and why. Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, 1992, at the Maryland Historical Society, brought awareness to institutional collecting and exhibiting practices that often favored the display of works by white men. Through this installation, Wilson was able to unearth works from the collection – alluding to the biases that these spaces have – presenting a case study impossible to ignore. With this in mind, I asked myself if The Broad Museum and its curatorial team would try to lean toward the promotion of more commercial works from the artists – minimizing the history of the period – to focus on drawing more attendance for local and national visitors. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Founding Director of The Broad Joanne Heyler spoke to the process of deciding on whether to take on this exhibition and how it almost didn’t happen. “There is not an overlap between the artists in the show and the Broad’s collection,” Heyler remarked. With many of the featured artists spending a significant part of their careers in the city and surrounding areas (Betye Saar and Noah Purifoy among the most notable), the biggest question I had for the Broad acquisitions team is – Why not?

Greeting you at the entryway is Carousel Change, 1970 by Sam Gilliam, a large piece of canvas resembling bed sheets with different shades and splatters, which I can imagine lived on the floor of Gilliam’s studio initially. The way this work was displayed at the entrance made me feel a bit uneasy. The last time I saw this work at the Tate, it was presented – in what seemed to be its entirety – full and stretched across the wall accentuating its scale and the vibrancy of color it contained. It welcomed the viewer like a big hug from a grandmother. In this display it confronts me in the form of a mob of seven Ku Klux Klansmen dressed in colorful robes, immediately bringing up thoughts of the 2015 “Birth of a Nation” project by the artist Paul Rucker. I wonder if anyone else felt this way? I digress.

Accompanied by a soundtrack curated by Quincy Jones – which is available via QR code visibly accessible on the gallery walls – you’re audibly guided through the retrospective with a playlist of horn-inspired rhythms and dialogue, allowing you to experience the music that defined the time. Quincy Jones in his summary on creating the list quotes that “You gotta know where you’re coming from to get where you’re going,“ as a precursor to this curation. With hits like “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud“ by James Brown and “Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone, I was interested in experiencing firsthand how the list would correlate to what visitors experienced. So I pressed play and started to head on in. Ironically, Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was the opening song.

We are introduced first to the SPIRAL Group, a collection of artists whose work reacted to the Civil Rights Movement, questioning how – as artists – they could interpret the times. Executing works in black and white only, artists like Norman Lewis, Emma Amos, Hale Woodruff, and Romare Bearden among others, sought to challenge the question of the Negro image in visual art. Lasting a few years (1963-1965), the group mounted the only exhibition titled “First Group Showing: Works in Black and White” as a response to black artists being overlooked by the institutions. Similar to a recent epidemic in major cities across the country, rising rents in the area where they gathered cost them their meeting space which ultimately led the group to go their separate ways.

You come across powerful works such as Freedom Now, 1963 by Reginald Gammon referencing The March on Washington. Depicting a scene of activists in bunches – seemingly about to march right out of the painting into the gallery – it struck me how using only the two primary colors the artist was able to conceal the races of the subjects. This manipulated viewpoint gives evidence to the “We are all in this together” motto that is often brought up during points of civil unrest in America.

The most astounding and polarizing work to me in the SPIRAL gallery was America the Beautiful, 1960 by Norman Lewis. This abstract work at first glance appears as random swipes of white house paint on a black panel, insinuating at a figure to be revealed once the viewer steps back to catch a full view. Upon further investigation, you see the shapes in the paint start to materialize and then realize you’re looking at a representation of a Ku-Klux-Klan meeting. I love the correlation in these works together. These works represent groups of people acting out its form of support for their message, which mirrored the inception of the SPIRAL group. It also puts on full display the duality of the American reality where dueling classes continue to battle for their rightful place in society. I often see the SPIRAL Group reemerging in the work of contemporary artists like using the same color palette to deliver his vision.

As the decade progressed and the voice of “Black Power” started to define itself through defiant imagery, black artists aimed at creating an identity of activism through their work. Symbols like the raised fist – The Black Power salute – and the American Flag were used as catalysts, sparking debate about the country’s treatment of its African-American citizens. This led to the emergence of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) which like the SPIRAL Group, organized their communication through artistic practices – albeit more politically charged. The gallery presents some of the imagery in the form of newsletters, caricatures, posters, and magazines in a vitrine showcasing the outreach of the groups in different forms of media.

Immediately upon entering the gallery, you can feel the tension in the work. Hinting at the catalysts previously mentioned, works like Kay Brown’s The Devil and His Game, 1970, depicting then-President Richard Nixon playing what appears to be a game of checkers with Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, using black children as the game pieces. And Dana C. Chandler’s Fred Hampton’s Door #2, 1975, a sculptural replica of the front door of Black Panther Fred Hampton that was shot through by Chicago Police – eventually entering and murdering him and another Panther member. They combined a grim history within its presentation. Mixed in with these works is Blackboard, 1967-71 by Cliff Joseph, showing a female teacher and young male student locking eyes with the viewer in front of a blackboard containing a Black History alphabet. Joseph used the subjects as signals for the need for “new revolutionary vocabulary”. The artworks in this gallery are more direct in their presentation – with the artists not pulling any punches – using the material as a channel of expression.

Benny Andrews’ Did the Bear Sit Under The Tree?, 1969, stares at you with the shaking fists of a man who has had enough with the country whose liberties he thought he’d be able to thrive under. The rolled-up nature of the flag in this work was very telling as it could describe what you would find if you look behind the curtain of America, or possibly, a fed-up citizen rolling up his flag to discard it – because its meaning doesn’t apply to him anymore. Andrews along with Cliff Joseph created the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) in response to “Harlem on My Mind”, a 1969 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in which all the black artists in the neighborhood’s invitations to participate mysteriously got lost in the mail. I hope you can appreciate my sarcasm.

I loved the juxtaposition of the works by Faith Ringgold (The Flag is Bleeding, 1967) and Elizabeth Catlett (Black Unity, 1968). Ringgold’s work arranges three figures behind a blood-soaked flag. All are locked in arms with the figure of a black male obscured behind the stars. What makes this stand out, even more, is that the black male in the painting holds his hand on his chest – reminiscent of the pledge of allegiance – but is also clutching a knife. I would love to know what that’s all about. Catlett’s Black Unity, 1968, is a double-sided sculpture appearing as either a clutched black fist or a duo of faces depending on where the viewer is positioned. Made from mahogany, the bronze nature of the wood accentuates the message of “Black Power” – as it is polished to read as black skin. When I doubled back and looked again, it’s almost like the black male figure in Ringgold’s work is having a dialogue with the faces of Catlett’s sculpture. It’s as if they’re sharing an intimate secret, instructing folks to stand firm but always watch your back.

I was a little disappointed to see that American People Series #20: Die, 1967 by Ringgold was replaced in The Broad Museum curation, as I really enjoyed seeing it in the Tate Modern display. Why the change? Was the loan period was over from the MoMA? Who knows?

In the black community, “The Streets“ has been a term used to represent being excluded from the mainstream, forming an underground set of values. Many black artists sought visibility outside of the white cube by taking to muralism. As an addition to the display, the curators presented “Art on the Streets”, a slideshow of archived photography of these murals across America. Focusing on The Wall of Respect – a mural on Chicago’s South Side – the murals became a place for gathering, ultimately leading to a rise in muralism across black neighborhoods. Being a Los Angeles resident, places like Leimert Park and The Great Wall of Crenshaw come to mind as references to how the wave of black muralism inspired the optical tone of our neighborhoods.

Chicago was a key location in the Black Power movement and in some cases has been dubbed “The Heart of Black America”. Producing art movements like AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), artists in the Midwest looked to add a new flavor and rhythm to contemporary painting. The group set out to paint positive vibrant images of black figures and penetrate the scene with an abundance of color. The works speak action into the gallery easily dominated by Wadsworth Jarrell’s depictions of Angela Davis in Revolutionary (Angela Davis), 1971 and Malcolm X in Black Prince, 1971. Both paintings burst with the images of the activists, surrounded by text that form to their features on canvas. Jarrell chose to use one of Malcolm X’s speeches at the bottom of the painting, giving power and emphasis to his words, while Davis’ image – pulled from a LIFE magazine photograph – was adequately decked out with a shoulder strap filled with wooden dowels (“bullets”), reflective of one of Jae Jarrell’s Revolutionary Suits – that was on display in the center of the room.

It was cool to also find the same admiration for Jarrell’s Revolutionary Suits in Jeff Donaldson’s Wives of Sango, 1971, which portrays three black women heavy militarized in formation, ready to take on anything that’s in their way. Donaldson presents the women as different ages, in different styles of clothing, and with different hairstyles – showing the varying appearances of the black woman – while concurrently alluding to their willingness to protect at all costs. If you’ve ever come across a black mother then you know this to be all too true. Carolyn Lawrence bursts with her colorful jazzy canvas work titled Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free, 1972, which resembles a poster from the psychedelic era, vibrant with color, and a slurred movement almost as if time is slowing down as your viewing.

As we enter “Black Light”- a gallery highlighting the work of black photographers – we come across an array of black and white works led by Roy DeCarva, showing his range in creating deep tonal photographs of life in New York City. Before seeing his work in the exhibition, I was under the impression that Gordon Parks – who is noticeably absent from the display – was the pioneer for the photographs of black life in America. I believe that while Gordon thrived in storytelling through documentary photography, Decarva set out to show blackness abstractly – focusing on the skin tone and features of the subject – creating drama through moments of calm. One of those moments came in the form of Shade Cord and Window, 1961, where a thin piece of string takes the form of a noose. Positioned close enough to where the window sill creates a bold shade of black, the string gently, quietly, and ferociously stands firm in the photo overlaying a building in the distance. This photo to me is quite moving. I believe Decarva spoke to the systematic racism in the inner city and how that ugly part of history seems to be inescapable.

Alongside the photography of Decarva, I was also introduced to the work of Beuford Smith whose 1968 photograph Man with Roses, 125 St. NYC, 1968, was another that stopped me in my tracks. Promoting black love, Smith seems to catch an older gentleman at random – possibly at a bus or train station as you noticed a woman walking with a bag in the background – waiting patiently with flowers for a loved one.

Also in the room was a vitrine featuring publications and photo books, under a curated selection of photographs by artists who worked concurrently, such as Herb Randall, Herb Robinson, Adger Cowans, Al Fennar, and Ming Smith. A nice bonus was seeing a digital copy of In Our Terribleness, 1970 by Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) and photographer Fundi (formerly Billy Abernathy). Fundi created the “Portraits of Life” in which Baraka responded with poetry. In his poem, Baraka explains his use of the word “Terribleness” as a way to uplift, a “new self-confident beauty”, enforcing the expression that “Black is Beautiful”. I would’ve loved to see the works of Howard Bingham in this section as well. His iconic black and white photographs of Muhammad Ali – a key Civil Rights figure – would have been in total sync with the tone of the exhibition as sports played a huge role in pushing the “Black Power” movement forward.

If there is one benefit to living in Los Angeles it’s that you get first-hand experience in Assemblage Art. From Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum to the sculpture of Betye Saar, the artists of the city have been the trailblazers of the movement, often incorporating elements of their reality to stage new experiences. Nails, steel, saxophones, and an old banjo case are just a few of the random items that you’ll encounter as you explore the oeuvre of the featured artists in the gallery. You’re welcomed immediately by Saar’s work Sambo’s Banjo, 1971-2 (On loan from California African American Museum (CAAM)) in which she uses the inside of a banjo case to stage a violent double lynching. In a plot twist, just above the victim, Saar – according to the documentation – left the tiny rifle visible for the character to free himself, ultimately placing his survival in his hands. This already sounds like a damn SAW movie. (Laughs.)

The room also features About Martin, 1975 by John Outterbridge who personally became a favorite of mine after seeing work of his at an exhibition at CAAM a while back. I again fell in love with this work as Outterbridge presents a tribute to Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the form of a miniature closet resembling a military shadow box. A suit hangs in the space just under a picture of his widow Coretta Scott King, reminiscent of the wardrobe he wore in public. The suit sits on top of a black box with the names of the cities (Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Washington) where some of his most famous speeches were held.

One new work by Noah Purifoy was added to the Los Angeles display, too much excitement of the local visitors. Watts Riot, 1966, contains debris from the 1965 Watts Rebellion to which Purifoy transformed into the work. The piece looks as if you’ll be able to still smell the charred material but good luck getting anywhere close enough to verify it. When I look at Watts Riot, 1966, I can see the influence of Purifoy on today’s contemporary artists like Mark Bradford – also from South Los Angeles – who employ the same anthropological process to art-making. With the museum featuring a few works by Bradford in its main galleries upstairs, it allows the show to draw connections and create a bridge for viewers to understand the artistic lineage. Sidenote: Mark Bradford’s Deep Blue, 2018 is a must-see.

Not to be outdone are the “Game of Thrones” style metal works by Melvin Edwards (Some Bright Morning, 1963, Afro-Phoenix #2, 1963 and Mamba, 1965) from his Lynch Fragment series. Commenting on social injustice, Edwards used the rough material of welded steel to present abstract visual commentary and possibly gaining acceptance into the Night’s Watch along the way. John T. Riddle’s Bird and Diz, Spirit versus Technology series, 1972 resemble Outterbridge’s work as collected materials are housed together to form a larger message. An homage to Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the work contains a saxophone and trumpet – which protrude beyond its casing – in what Riddle calls a “breaking out of the boxes,” referring to the musicians’ ability to transcend with their musical innovations. I would love to see how this work talks to Jean Michel Basquiat’s Horn Players, 1983 in the same space as it also speaks to the improvisational style of artistry that the musicians shared. Definitely worth a trip upstairs to compare.

“Three Graphic Artists” dedicated to the 1971 exhibit of the same name at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) featured Charles White, – whose solo retrospective is currently on view at the institution until June 2019 – David Hammons, and Timothy Washington – who I’ve had the honor to meet through artist friends in the city. Under the mentorship provided by White, Hammons, and Washington were able to develop techniques that would help define their work for years to come. Hammons experimented with vegetable fat while Washington developed a new form of etching onto metal, visible in his work One Nation Under God, 1970.

The highlight of the show for me was David Hammons’ The Door (Admissions Office), 1969. In this work, Hammons’ famed body print technique – also on display in the remaining works by Hammons in the gallery (Black First, America Second 1970, Three Spades 1971, and Spade (Power of The Spade), 1969) – is displayed on an old wooden door reminiscent of the interior doors in a schoolhouse. On the glass that sits in the door under the words “Admissions Office” in vinyl, you see an oil-based imprint of hands, a face and part of a body giving off the strange appearance of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”, a catchphrase derived from the 2014 murder of Eric Garner.

It was easy to see the references to the young black bodies sacrificed to the inequality of the American school system. It’s always icing on the proverbial cake when you continuously encounter work whose meaning is still just as clear today as it was during its inception. The display of this work brought up thoughts of nostalgia, as I was quickly reminded of the museums opening day in 2015 where the press was welcomed by picketing teachers making their voices heard about Eli Broad’s (Philanthropist and Founder of The Broad Museum) involvement in a plan to increase private education through charter schools. I wonder if any of the curators considered this? Or if they even remember that? Hmm. Carry On.

As you’re preparing to cross into the next gallery, you are forced to face Hammons’ powerful work Injustice Case, 1971. Again employing his body print technique, Hammons sought to bring awareness to the treatment of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale during his trial – where he was bound and gagged after outbursts in the courtroom. A very harrowing image wrapped in the American flag, Hammons sought to “frame” the results of an oppressive structure, with the work appearing as an X-ray into the fabric of the American justice system.

I hate to write this, but the East Coast Abstraction gallery was my least favorite of the exhibition. I know, I know, it has powerhouses like Jack Whitten, Ed Clark, and William T. Williams but these works – while powerful on their own – just did not feel right together in this layout. These works are larger but lack the intensity of some of their smaller counterparts in the previous galleries – at least collectively. Speaking to the abstract nature of representation, these artists took to hard-edges and color staining as methods of creation, challenging the fact that blackness had to be rooted in figurative painting.

The gallery introduces its story with Jack Whitten’s Homage to Malcolm, 1970, an abstract tribute to the late Civil Rights leader Malcolm X. Executed on triangular canvas, the shape represents the pyramids of Egypt of which Malcolm visited on his pilgrimage to Mecca. With actions rooted in the Black Power Movement, Whitten took to his Afro-comb to move around the black paint in the center of the work – releasing hues of green, red and blue – and providing a ridged texture in the center.

Close by, you find Sam Gilliam’s April 4, 1969, a large stained canvas tribute to Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. marking the day of his assassination. This was one piece that presented itself to me as more of a representation of the evidence than a tribute. The dark reds and staining remind me more of the effort to save Dr. King’s life after he’d been shot. I see more of the blood-stained fabric of the first responders and friends who fought tirelessly to save his life. Maybe this is a tribute to them? Or maybe a reminder of what we lost as a community?

Trane, 1969, by William T. Williams provides the burst of color you’ve come to expect from abstraction with vibrant jagged lines that capture a multitude of colors finding their way through. Acting on the improvisation of Jazz – which he referred to as “Abstract Music” – Williams uses the hard-edged lines like a music visualizer, attempting to replicate the powerful sound from the performances of John Coltrane.

Peeking into abstract minimalism are the works by Virginia Jaramillo (Untitled, 1971), Daniel LaRue Johnson (D9 Flat 5th, 1969), and Tom Lloyd (Narokan, 1965) who was among the first to experiment with manipulating light as a form of art. It was really hard to experience the potential light show of Narokan, 1965 which was installed way too high to truly enjoy. This could’ve been done just a tad bit better in my opinion.

Before you crossover to the next gallery, you meet the egg-shaped canvas of Ed Clark with Yenom (#9), 1970. The work has a planetary feel reminiscent of gas giant Jupiter, with its landscape blurred – revealing only tidbits of the surface. It was interesting to read that this work (along with Virginia Jaramillo) was included in the racially integrated 1971 exhibition “The DeLuxe Show” in Houston, Texas. The show proved to be monumental as the artists descended on the Fifth Ward and provided the neighborhood with access to fine art and a foundation in which to look at black artists and modernism.

Cruising into the next gallery, you’re welcomed by the smooth and cool Barkley Hendricks who – with four large works – takes the lead in the space. The first of the Hendricks works you come across is Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale), 1969. A portrait of the artist standing confidently against a heroic silver background, almost presenting himself as a packaged children’s toy with the “I’m all the hero you need!” moniker. With his arms crossed, he is seen sporting an afro and dark sunglasses – a tribute to the Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale – and a Superman T-Shirt covering only up to the top of his pelvic area. Unlike his work Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait), 1977, which sits across the gallery, Hendricks does a better job in this portrait of at least concealing his genitalia. (Laughs). The artist is posing naked with a white leather hat and sunglasses, wristbands, jewelry, socks, and sneakers with a very matter-of-fact demeanor. Hendricks’ exploration of his nude body stemmed from a review by the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer – in which he referred to the artist as a “Brilliantly Endowed Painter”. Hendricks used his work (with that quote as fuel) to explore the black body as a subject while demonstrating his skill as a painter. I’ve often seen this work as a rebuttal to that of Robert Mapplethorpe and others, who were often criticized for their fascination with the black male body and the exploitation thereof.

Alice Neel presents a content Faith Ringgold seated in a bright red dress with floral print, led by dark blue strands of color that goes extremely well against the striped chair that she’s seated on. She has one hand clasping the other, as she stares directly at the viewer with a look of patience and security. Neel gives Ringgold what looks like two rosaries around her neck – possibly hinting at Ringgold’s commitment to her faith. Faith Ringgold, 1977, I believe focuses on the artist’s strength and commitment to her causes as an artist and woman, and Neel’s respect for her ambitious spirit, with the composition and position evocative of a presidential portrait.

Raymond Saunders’ portrait features the first African-American World Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson (Jack Johnson, 1971) as an armless dark green figure in a blazer, tie, and slacks mixed in a splash of color. Inside of the vibrancy, the artist scratches the signature of the champion vertically on the right of the subject, along with a date inscribed on the bottom left, maybe hinting at the reference photo that could have been the source for the work. I think of the color splash as the noise around him as he climbed the ranks in boxing to become the champion. With his mouth being the only visible feature, Saunders places a grin on Johnson as if to imply the artist “smiling through it all” as he moves forward through his success.

Emma Amos’ portrait pays tribute to an icon in her life with Eva the Babysitter, 1973. A yellow background sets the tone for the dedication, as she presents Eva seated comfortably in a red chair – smiling as she poses for the portrait. A child enters halfway into the frame – possibly Amos’ daughter unable to sit still during the process – insisting she is included. This addition of the daughter shows the loving relationship of Eva to the mother and child. I love how Amos adds the parquet floor with the red, white, and black carpet to break up the strong yellow in the painting, allowing for the reddish hues in the clothing of Eva and the seats to have more of a presence in the work.

I can remember the first time I saw Beauford Delaney’s Portrait of James Baldwin?, 1971. After reading the description I remember saying to myself, “How is there a question about the portrait if they were known friends?”. I’ll admit that there is something a bit off about the work, but it has all of Baldwin’s characteristics – the receding hairline and turtle neck were dead giveaways – and at the time the artist was going through a few mental health issues that could’ve made his memory of his friend’s facial features a bit skewed. The mustard color palette is a sharp contrast to the more colorful portraits by the artist of Baldwin. Like his 1945 painting (Portrait of James Baldwin, 1945) in which bright reds, bold blues and interchanging shadows of brown, yellow, and white accentuate the detail in the skin, giving a more impressionistic look. Although titled by Baldwin’s brother, Baldwin himself owned this painting and I’d like to think he wouldn’t keep a random look-alike painting (laughs).

The final two Barkley Hendricks works speak to his brilliance in using solid backgrounds of a specific color, while his subjects are overlaid with fabrics that mirror the tone of the backdrop. What’s Going On, 1974, always reminded me of a Motown singing group. Four of the five subjects in the painting are dressed in all white with hats to match, and the fifth one is a woman who is shown naked with her black skin as the beautiful contrast against the bold white background. Blood (Donald Formey), 1975, is a deep blood red painting of a man dressed in plaid, toting a tambourine staring firmly at the viewer. I’ve always wondered if the primary colors of these works were representative of something. Maybe the mood or vibe the artist got from the subject? Maybe it was the dominant colors in the clothing when he started his study sketches? Perhaps that’s research for another essay.

Improvisation and experimentation have always been key to the development of new forms of art-making and storytelling. Using materials from the unified experience of the black community, the artists in this section sought to expound on their practices by introducing new ways of presentation, allowing viewers to mentally participate in understanding the message. Alongside these materials are the stories that come with their use. Melvin Edwards’ powerful work Curtain (For William and Peter), 1969 – named after artists William T. Williams and Peter Bradley who were once his studio mates – is as haunting as it is provocative.

The work, very minimalist, employs barbed wire and chains to hint at the history of American slavery and incarceration. The barbed wire strands hang down from an overhead base connected by chain links. While at the bottom, each piece of wire is intertwined with the chains – calling attention to a prison chain gang or the terrible history of slavery in which groups of slaves were chained in unison to be sold. With prison reform a hot topic in current culture, this work almost feels contemporary as these same elements and materials are taking a larger role in our society with the privatization of the prison system.

Alvin Loving’s, Untitled #32, ca. 1975, and Joe Overstreet’s We Came from There to Get Here, 1970, are prime examples of how artists experimented with the installation and display of their work. Loving cut up his painted canvases only to sew them back up again into new realities, creating colorful collaged textiles. The works are very reminiscent of quilts that have been passed down through generations in the African-American community, with new additions as time goes on. Overstreet used the rope as a way of demonstrating the horror of lynching, but also the possibility of freedom with the rope also used a supports for the work. With its tent-like appearance, the work presents itself full of energetic color with a clever undertone hinting at black artists “setting up camp” in the art world – accentuating the speculation of a “black art” aesthetic.

Alma Thomas’ Mars Dust, 1972 – one of the paintings displayed in her 1972 Whitney Museum of Art Show – shows the artist’s fascination with space. With bright red brushstrokes overtop shades of blue (that try and peak through space in between), Thomas reimagines dust storms and landscapes as she sought to stimulate her fascination with space travel. A pioneer in abstract painting and a member of the famed Washington Color School, Thomas focused on movement, patterns, and consistency in abstract painting. Her work Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963, was selected by First Lady Michelle Obama for display in the White House. For an artist who was said to be overlooked, she was constantly on view in the West Wing during the Obama presidency.

The largest work in the gallery – Frank Bowling’s Texas Louise, 1971 – gives the viewer a feeling of approaching the peak of a mountain range to look at the sunset. Vibrant ranges of color blend with stenciled outlines of the continents, referring to the global mindset of identity. As you spend time with the work you can’t help but think of Bowling’s concept of the Map Paintings and how they relate to our current world. These works according to Bowling were to “celebrate a more fluid and open idea of identity and belonging to the world”, a contemporary concept talked about but rarely practiced.

Last but not least in the gallery is Jack Whitten’s Asa’s Palace, 1973, a large purplish canvas with islands of green paint that give the impression of vines in a wisteria tree. Using what Whitten called a “developer”, he created “rake-like” strokes, with the results imitating pulling the canvas fresh from a printer jam. 

Entering the gallery dedicated to the work of Los Angeles-based artist Betye Saar is like stumbling into a secret antique store in rural Louisiana. The works are very ritualistic, with sculptures resembling altars and artifacts of ceremony that Saar uses almost as remedies, mentally inoculating the viewer through the context of each assembled object. Welcoming you into the gallery are Mti, 1973, and Spirit Catcher, 1977, two totem sculpted works with a myriad of materials. These two works are seminal as Mti, 1973, was featured in her first survey show “BETYE SAAR 1964-1973” at the Fine Arts Gallery at The California State University in Los Angeles and Spirit Catcher, 1977, is the result of a research trip to Haiti – in which she studied religious belief systems and practices. I have always been amazed at the practice of Betye Saar as it speaks not only her artistic imagination but the depth in her research as there is something new to find in every repeated encounter.

Above your head are Rainbow Mojo, 1972, and Eye, 1972, work made from cut and stitched leather topped with acrylic paint to mirror their respective subjects, hanging by clear string banner-like from the gallery ceiling. Nine Mojo Secrets, 1971 and Ten Mojo Secrets, 1972, face each other in the gallery, and to understand them both, I had to do my own research and it was very informative. I found out that a “mojo” is a charm that is lauded for its purported magic and ability to heal. It was also revealed that Saar’s zodiac sign is Leo, which explains the toy lion – a symbolic reflection of herself – in the work. The lion makes another appearance in Eshu (The Trickster), 1971, this time as a portrait made out of wood, leather, straw, and feathers. I like to think this work is the artist recognizing the strength associated with her zodiac sign. Bold and full of pride and power, the lion takes the form of an African mask or a stele made from contemporary materials.

As you head up toward the finish line of the exhibition, you start to see light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The exhibit starts to say its farewell as you can hear the crowd gathered in the lobby, awaiting their pilgrimage through the sea of visual black history. The final gallery is dedicated to the work and legacy of Just Above Midtown, – better known as “JAM”-  a gallery program created by Linda Goode Bryant, focusing on exhibiting the work of African American artists. Situated in the heart of New York’s commercial art world, Bryant created a marketplace for the work of artists of color to be “seen and work to be sold”, becoming a center of black art exhibition, and a space for avant-garde ambition.

In the vitrine placed at the center of the gallery were Items from the JAM archive, including installation photographs, exhibition posters, catalogs, and publications as well as performance documentation that captured the essence of the gallery’s programming throughout its duration. It is amazing to see the amount of pride and also growth that the space produced during its history, lasting from 1974–1986.

The artists featured in the gallery were instrumental to the rise and success of JAM. By creating work that allowed for discussion, immediately provided insight into an artist’s vision. Artists such as David Hammons and Senga Nengudi used activation as a form of interaction, creating works that were lauded and also heavily debated. JAM was able to use interaction as its calling card, staging large-scale projects inclusive of the community like Lorraine O’Grady Art Is…, 1983 at the 1983 Harlem African American Day Parade.

Her forty-part photography series featured selected portraits of Harlem residents along with local storefronts and building facades that represented the fabric of the community. As the story goes, Grady entered a float in the parade which displayed a large gold picture frame. She also hired fifteen dancers to survey and interact with the parade crowds with smaller gold frames, extending the experience. In essence, to be inclusive, Grady used the public performance as an opportunity to finally “include” black people in contemporary art as many of the onlookers and participants jumped at the chance to take part.

Senga Nengudi creates works based on performance using nylon tights among other objects such as sand and rubber. I laugh when I think of my first encounter with her work in London. I initially felt cheated as if someone was playing a trick on me. For me, that was the final straw in this new contemporary art scene. “Tights with sand? How fucking desperate are we?” I thought, not knowing how uneducated I was to the power the artist had in her performance. It wasn’t until I came across the Tate Modern’s video series “TateShots” and viewed an interview with Linda Goode Bryant and Senga Nengudi did I truly comprehend the level of artistic genius she exhibited.

Her work Internal II, 1977, 2015, reminds me of a spider’s web providing support to the walls of the gallery. As I learned more about the work, I understood that it spoke to the strength of the female body and it then it made sense. Senga mentions in the “TateShots” video how the nylon is at “wit’s end” from being stretched to the point of anxiety. I immediately felt a connection to the work and how it represented my mother, a strong single woman who stretched everything she had as far as she could to see me and my brother succeed. Even if it meant she would herself be stressed and challenged beyond her greatest capabilities. As Nengudi relates it to black females, she comments on the female body being reflected abstractly as being “used” and I contemplated the way we view women and beauty standards in society. I started to think of the women who struggle to return to their normalcy after childbirth and how tough that can be. I believe this was a great way to deliver the message as you could see the strength in the fragility, a perfect reference to the female body.

David Hammons’ Bag Lady in Flight, 1975, reconstructed in 1990, leads off the display of his works shown in previous exhibits at JAM. I swear when I look at this work I hear Erykah Badu’s song, “Bag Lady”. Made from shopping bags, grease, and human hair, Hammons looks to these materials and the results of the incorporation as a dedication to the positivity they hold in the black community. I see this work as a tribute to the spending power of the black woman. With the hair and grease being primary materials in the work, I think of companies like Bronner Brothers and how they have built a billion-dollar industry with hair care products all through the spending of black women. Funny enough being from Philadelphia, a brown greasy bag has always made me smile because inside of that bag usually awaited a cheesesteak which could explain my immense hunger after the exhibition. (laughs)

Also included was Untitled, c.1980’s, a wall sculpture made from pork ribs, tire inner tubes, and costume jewelry that I still can’t grasp the meaning of. I’d like to think it represented part of his upbringing and the materials and objects that were part of his everyday life. Just as in Bag Lady In Flight, 1975, Hammons uses the items to spark a form of nostalgia, tying seemingly different items together. Maybe this was a dedication to summer cookouts and neighborhood bike riding?

One of the absolute coolest works in the exhibition is Dawoud Bey’s A Boy in front of the Loews 125th Street Movie Theater, 1976, printed by 1979, showing an adolescent boy decked out in the latest fashionable tracksuit, a stylin’ pair of shades, holding what appears to be a juice carton posing on a wooden barricade in front of the theatre. The most notable thing in the photos to me was the kid’s bright white sneakers, as the beautiful contrast in the photo makes them seem to glow. This effect is also replicated in A Woman at 7th Avenue & 138th Street 1976/7, printed by 1979, where the subject’s shoes and purse reveal a similar radiance.

Howardena Pindell’s Untitled, 1978, and Randy Williams’s, Color in Art, 1976, round out the gallery displaying new abstract assemblage practices within. In Pindell’s Untitled, 1978, she uses hole-punched dots to create a texture similar to braille on top of a re-sewn canvas. The work merges the senses as each looks deeper it seems as if you can feel the texture across your fingertips. Prompting you to reach out only to be reminded to “please stay a foot behind the line” by the gallery attendant. In Color in Art, 1976, Williams uses wooden window shutters as the structure for the work accompanied by rope and a book screwed down to the wooden frame with a plexiglass plate. Williams’ work deals with the parallel themes of inclusion/exclusion, a topic he feels still needs some addressing as he continues to develop his practice while working as a college professor.

As I exited the final gallery, I ran into Self, 1978, by Martin Puryear (Puryear will represent the U.S. in the 2019 Venice Biennale) which I must’ve completely missed walking up to the exhibit entrance. In the Tate Modern curation of the show, the work was featured in the Improvisation and Experimentation gallery but somehow made its way outside the exhibition in LA. Possibly to highlight his Biennale accomplishments which I certainly am not mad at. The work is made of cedar and mahogany stained black, sticking upwards off the plinth resembling the fin of a shark on the hunt. The work as the artist explains is a representation of self as a secret entity that appears heavy and strong but in all actuality is quite hollow. If that ain’t a jab at humanity I dunno what is. But Puryear is careful in his interpretations often leaving it up to the viewer. He stated, “I value the referential quality of art, the fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them.”, creating his form of symbolism as a vehicle for characterization.

So what’s is the next step after Soul of a Nation? Is this the beginning of the retrospective for black art movements? Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 was a great insight into the artistic movements that existed during the Black Power era and serves as a visual history. Are era-based retrospectives the best way to understand the African-American contribution to the global art world? As I write this essay I think of what I’ve learned just by observation. The research of artworks allowed me to understand the artists’ backgrounds, their materials, and how their use of them helped to change and develop the practice of art-making. It uncovered artistic movements that mirror those of contemporary art today, adding credence to the “history always repeats itself” saying. It also was a strong reminder as we look in that same mirror, that many of the reasons for collectives like the Spiral Group and Just Above Midtown still exist today, with black artists and professionals combating issues of inclusion in museums and blue-chip galleries in new ways.

This retrospective has activated the city with showings of black artists, as local galleries and museums are presenting complementary shows adding appreciation to the contributions of black artists to the fine art canon. I wonder how or if this exhibition will improve the primary and secondary markets of the participating artists? Will artists like Betye Saar, Jae Jarrell, and Alma Thomas start to enjoy the same market success as Njideka Akunyili Crosby now that this show has made its mark? How long will these works remain with their current collectors? It will be very interesting to see what the future holds for the careers of these artists, but for now, we can all enjoy and bask at the moment for however long it lasts.

Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 is on view at The Broad Museum, 221 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Through Sep. 1st, 2019,


Frieze LA 2019 at Paramount Studios

Frieze LA 2019 at Paramount Studios

Located at the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood, the first edition of the Frieze Art Fair encompassed a full-on art gallery fair experience alongside the exterior New York backlot, which featured projects of selected artists from galleries participating in the fair programming. I was really excited to cover the inaugural Los Angeles edition of the fair as I have been to and covered the London and New York editions, and they have been simply amazing. 

A favorite of mine is the programming for the Frieze Masters section, featured in the London edition. It gives the feeling of perusing through the collections of a global public museum. I was intrigued at how the fair’s curators would incorporate the backlot into its programming, as they’ve done with projects like Frieze Sculpture (another favorite).

As I arrived at the wrong gate (there were like five of them) for entry into the Paramount lot, I crossed paths with Jerry Saltz and got to have a short conversation with him and a cool selfie. To my surprise, he knew who I was – well, my work. I finally walked a couple of blocks to the correct entry and headed to see what all the fuss was about. I decided that it would be smart to head to the Frieze Projects section first, as the inconsistency with the weather would dampen the outside experience.

As you walk from the entrance to the backlot you couldn’t help but notice green stickers with bold white writing placed randomly along the walkway, grabbing the attention of visitors. These stickers posed questions to the viewer like “Whose Values?”, and “Whose Beliefs?”, allowing viewers to ponder what the answer would be as it related to them. This was a public art project by artist Barbara Kruger titled Untitled (Questions 3), 2019, with her famous style of boldly questioning authority through her visual practice. 

If you weren’t looking down at Kruger’s public project you were probably looking upward as visitors were greeted by a large, almost movie poster-ish banner artwork presented by Los Angeles-based Contemporary Artist Mark Bradford. The banner featured a body camera on a white background titled Life Size, 2018 (which I later found out that he sold as a limited edition print through Hauser and Wirth for the Art For Justice Fund).

The Paramount Studios New York City backlot presented a different experience for visitors as it had the feeling of walking around the local neighborhood and finding a block party. It also felt very Disney, as building doors that opened up to nothing and streets that went nowhere quickly reminded you that you were “on set”. Such an appropriate feeling for an art fair, wouldn’t you say?

As you walk around the backlot you encounter the various projects presented by selected artists and their representative galleries. There was a sculpture by artist Claudine Czudej that appeared to be waiting patiently in a pose for Jimmy Hoffa (Waiting For Jimmy Hoffa, 2019) staring at a large bottle of “Daddie’s Ketchup”, a large public art installation by Paul McCarthy (Daddies Tomato Ketchup Inflatable, 2007 with Hauser and Wirth) that towered over the lot.

The backlot projects also featured a Psychic Art Advisor presented by artist Lisa Anne Auerbach which featured a performance of predicting your artistic future led by psychic Alpine Moon. I wondered how many collectors stopped by her office before heading into the main galleries hoping to gain insight on what to purchase once inside. Funny to think about, but I’d bet that at least one asked the question. (laughs).

My favorite works by far from the backlot projects were Karon Davis’ Game, 2019 presented by Wilding Cran Gallery, and Hannah Greeley’s High and Dry, 2019 presented by Parker Gallery. Both spaces are located in Los Angeles. Game, 2019 featured plaster sculptures made by Davis in the human form of two young students and an adult teacher. Staged in front of the fictitious Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy, a building on the backlot made to represent a public school facade, Davis recreates an after-school scene. 

One of the students sits on the stoop possibly waiting for a pickup from a parent while simultaneously trying to figure out what’s going on with the string in his hands, while the other student makes her up the steps to the building while a teacher looks on. What really caught my attention was the antlers that were attached to the plastered creations. The term “Young Buck” comes to mind as a term of endearment for the male youth in the black community and I wondered if Davis saw these “bucks” in the same light. 

What I thought was very cool was how Karon Davis’ work lent itself to the project of Hannah Greely and vice versa. Greeley’s High and Dry, 2019, an aerial sculpture consisting of painted fabrics that hung from a clothesline, really putting a stamp on inner-city living. It almost felt like the young student from Davis’ work was running to school from the apartment homes that Greeley’s installation was installed. 

As the chill from the weird weather week started to set back in, I decided to head into the galleries section of the fair and see what was new, old, put on hold, or sold. Art advisors and consultants were tied to the hip of their clients (and their phones) as they coordinated guided tours with VIPs hoping to secure the sought after treasures before they were quickly snatched up by excited patrons. 

I was hoping to get in and get to talk with some artists and get some photos of amazing works. I was able to do at least one of those things as the featured artists in the majority of the booths were completely on a swivel as their gallerists and potential patrons pulled them every which way possible. I can’t blame them though, for those booth prices and immediate access to a focused client base, the ROI comes first and foremost.


Gallery 38 Mural Program (West Adams)

Gallery 38: Neighborhood Mural Program

Above: MDMN and Knowledge Bennett at Gallery 38, Spring 2015. Photo by Badir McCleary

Tommy Fiendish, London, Summer 2016
Flore & The Producer BDB and Norm Maxwell, Opening Mural, Summer 2015
Norm Maxwell, Opening Mural, Summer 2015
AngelOnce, Summer 2015
HIMBAD, J.C. Tires (Across from Gallery 38), Summer 2016
Flore & The Producer BDB, Summer 2015
Patrick Henry Johnson, Summer 2016
Ador and Semor, Across from Gallery 38), Summer 2016
J.C. Rivera, Summer 2016
Jake Merten, Summer 2016
Jaq Dutch and Yenna Haring, Across from Gallery 38), Summer 2016
Norm Maxwell, Summer 2017
Brett Crawford, Summer 2017

SCOPE Art Show 2018 at Art Basel Miami

Dec 1st — Dec 8, 2018

SCOPE Art Show, Miami Beach, FL

Exhibition Information

“Configuration” is set to open at SCOPE International Art Fair on December 4th, 2018 featuring a collection of works by Philadelphia-based contemporary artists Serena Saunders, Ivben Taqiy, and Gabe Tiberino. Curated by Badir R. McCleary

Serena Saunders is a Visual Artist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her work as a painter has a fresh, color-strong perspective that speaks to our imagination while the subjects ask for our awareness. Her often large-scale, graphically bold, and poetically composed paintings offer the viewer layers of narrative. The painter works with a color palette that gives her intricate prints a world of their own. She then uses these environments on canvas as a backdrop to her portraits and their stories. You will often find a matter of injustice or undying hope fighting its way through the line of work to prevail at the surface.

At the age of 7 years old, Ivben Taqiy fell in love with art. Twenty-plus years later, he’s doing what he loves. Although Philadelphia based, he has created murals, portraits, and other forms of visual art for many well-known celebrities and corporations. Taqiy has worked with Foot Locker, Fox25 News, Jimmy Johns, Lauryn Hill, and Swizz Beats to name a few. With a resume that stretches from North to South and East to West; Taqiy still manages to make time to serve and teach the youth in the Philadelphia communities. Art has been his pathway to building relationships and life, he encourages artists to continue to move forward so that they don’t miss out on all that life has to offer them and their talent.

Gabe Tiberino is a visual artist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born into artistic practice, he is a scion of one of Philadelphia’s best-known art families. Tiberino was probably the youngest person (eighteen) to be the lead artist on a Philadelphia Mural Arts Program project. In 2005 he received his certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, winning the Best Figurative Painter Award in the Student Exhibition. Since 1998, he has been a part of the Mural Arts Program working as a lead muralist and assisting several renowned, international artists. His murals can be seen throughout Philadelphia.


Relational Chemistry

Relational Chemistry

ArtAboveReality is pleased to present “Relational Chemistry: An Introspective of Urban Experience”, a group survey highlighting nineteen contemporary artists in the city of Philadelphia. Focusing on their grassroots origins, “Relational History: A Introspective of Urban Experience” speaks to the artists using their practice to realize and then share their identities, an entrance, for the viewer, into the artist’s inner selves. 

Oct 16th — 20th, 2018

Ivben Studios, Philadelphia, PA

Curators Statement

With urbanism being diverse and lively, advancing in technology, and shifting capital investment, It is shaped by power and wealth, as well as imagination and labor layered with intertwined cultural and social histories. The work manifests itself in facets of painting, sculpture, and interactive installations, centering on the interpretation of culture, society, identity, and the complex but meaningful conversations relating to contemporary issues of urbanism and human chemistry. While the members of this show come from diverse backgrounds, it is this chemistry that ties their experiences and practices together.

Artists In The Exhibition:
Aubrie Costello, Holly Colaguori, Bariq Cobbs, Nema Etebar, Claes Gabriel, Kenneth Jackson, Caryn Kunkle, Nile Livingston, June Lopez, Alloyius McIlwaine, IvbenTaqiy, Taji Ra’oof Nahl, Dejeonge Reese, Serena Saunders, Richard Tenaglia, Ellen Tiberino, Gabe Tiberino, Raphael Tiberino, and Derrick Woodyard.

The exhibit will be on view to the public from October 16th through 20th. Press release and show imagery available upon request. Please contact for more information. “Relational Chemistry: An Introspective of Urban Experience” is located at 3239 Amber Street., Philadelphia, PA 19134. Stay updated with ArtAboveReality on Instagram (@ArtAboveReality)  via the hashtags #ArtAboveReality, #RelationalChemistry. Also, visit us at All images are subject to copyright. Gallery approval must be granted prior to reproduction.


Aqua Art Miami 2017 at Art Basel Miami

Aqua Art Miami 2017 at Art Basel Miami

Gallery 38, an ongoing project by ArtAboveReality and Bancs Media, opened its doors in March of 2015 with the hopes of starting an artistic renaissance in the West Adams neighborhood. One year later, the mission continues. Named in a LA Weekly article as “The Center of the burgeoning West Adams Art Scene”, Gallery 38 has done over 15 solo exhibitions and art fairs and has been able to continue the tradition of presenting emerging and established artists while focusing on developing the community around them.

Dec 1 — Dec 9, 2017

Aqua Art Miami, Miami, FL

Exhibition Information

Artists In The Exhibition:
Reisig and Taylor, Moncho 1929, Sharon Barnes, Sam Pace, and Patrick Henry Johnson.

Gallery 38 will present a group show featuring our roster of artists with successful solo gallery shows this year. Each artist represents different backgrounds (Race, Religion, etc.) as well as use different mediums (Photography, Sculpture, Paint, etc.) to exude their experiences and realities. The show digs deeper into the intricacies of the human being and his/her place in society. With each artist having works that exhibit identity, self-awareness and urban poetry, this show hopes to continue the conversation that in our differences we are extravagantly similar, and those similarities when merged together create something better than an individualistic society, they create a melting pot of forward thinking ideas.

While the members of this show come from diverse backgrounds, there are similarities that tie the works together. The work centers on interpretation of culture, society, identity and the complex connections that hold all of these constructs together. The work manifests itself in facets of paint, sculpture and interactive installations, all designed to use space, color and texture to invite meaningful conversations relating to contemporary issues.

Interacting with surface abstractly, creating new reality along the way almost seamlessly without thought allows these artists to display an artistic courage that will allow the viewer to take a deeper look into each artist’s journey from past to present.


Black Bodies, Feminism, and Representation

Black Bodies, Feminism, and Representation. Is the use of the body in art the most effective way to examine social inequities and help to progress the surrounding conversation? 

The body being one of if not the most sacred pieces of humanity, is also often one of the most scrutinized, abused, and controlled entities of our society. It has been used to judge, influence, and portray humanity, creating a classification system to which certain validations are required for participation. The body, and its representations, have also been used to spark debate, incite protest and warrant further study into its meaning to science, politics, and art. The body has been used to make political statements against censorship and control as well as promote beauty in the human form. This duality sometimes gives way to endless debates about the body’s representation in society.

Artists have long been truth-tellers of society through the masterpieces that they create, sometimes the messages are hidden beneath the surface and other times so direct that it has been known to resonate immediately with its viewer. A great artist or artwork is one whose message continues throughout time as a capsule of the current moment. Like the body, this capsule contains stories of the past and allows for future examination and debate. 

I will examine three artists and their works that I believe help demonstrate a societal outlook on the body. Barbara Kruger, David Hammons, and Robert Mapplethorpe all prominent in their fields of study with interesting works that deal directly with the human body. Critical, Controversial, and Timely, these artists demonstrated the use of the body as a medium, as a representation of judgment, and to fight against laws that set to determine who was in control of its essence. The question I have is whether or not the use of the body in art is the most effective way to examine social inequities and help progress the surrounding conversation?

Specifically, three prominent works by these artists come to mind when I think of the representation of the body in art. David Hammons’ America the Beautiful, 1968, Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989 and Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book (1986), three works that will live forever because of the connections to the representation of the body in different forms in their current moment of time.

Historically, through slavery, Jim Crow laws of the American South, and the Civil War, black bodies have been an instrument in the development of America. In 1968, when the civil rights movement drew to a close, these same bodies were still seen as inferior and a target to American society by government, media, and corporate community. Inspired by the body movements of Yves Klein’s Anthropometries and using his body as the tool for creation, Hammons created this piece by covering himself, torso, limbs, and face in oil and margarine, then pressing himself against the paper in almost a reenactment of black bodies being slammed on police cars. Showing the smashed impressions of his physical form, Hammons is able to evoke the impact and change on the body structure as it hits the surface revealing only certain features in the form of a manual x-ray or a thumbprint. 

Hammons used this method of production in an assembly line fashion hinting at the continuous strain on the body as in fieldwork for slaves. Adding the American Flag as a key part of this piece goes to symbolize these horrors wrapped up or covered up within the American constitution. Creating lithographs of these prints I believe hinted at the countless bodies being used in the horror with the reproductive process being used as a metaphor of American production. 

In using critical race theory through this work Hammons identifies himself with the examination of society through race, law-making, and the elite class. Hammons challenges the notion of the rejection of  “color-blindness” with himself as the tool insisting that the viewer recognize that his own body was the sacrifice for the creation of this work. Hammons demands society to engage with this work through the eyes of privilege and discrimination which continue the overarching hand of supremacy in America. Using this work as almost a parable for the black experience in America, Hammons attempts to preserve the history of black pain in the period by documenting its effects on the mind, body, and character of its marginalized citizens. 

Hammons’s use of this patriotic symbol juxtaposed with the black body (or representation thereof) went to emphasize the racial tensions in the United States during this period. Titling the series, Black First, American Second, the artist demonstrates the discrimination that Black Americans felt from their white counterparts on issues of justice and equality. The body pressed fully against the paper also gives the viewer the feeling of a fallen war hero laid in his casket at a funeral, I believe making a sympathetic gesture of black people’s’ contribution to the country. With the Vietnam War still being at its height, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr and the start of the Black Power Movement, America the Beautiful, 1968, and its production process acts as a dedication and sacrifice of the black body.

America the Beautiful, 1968 is a stark reminder of the Dred Scott decision of 1857 that spoke to the validity of citizenship of black people in the United States. By applying the flag as a reference Hammons brings into play the inconsistency of the American government in providing liberties to its black citizens. Using Derrick Bell’s research on critical race theory as a premise, I believe Hammons used art to communicate issues of the community that previously fell on deaf ears. By imploring these thoughts in his work, he (Hammons) invites the viewer to examine the interpretations of American history and how it’s consistently played out unfavorably in the American justice system. 

I would consider this piece as a component of ethnic studies for its content and contention to the Eurocentric perspective. Ethnic studies were conceived in the civil rights era when Hammons started these works and sought to change the way the stories and representations of African Americans are viewed. Hammons, I believe, felt the best way to accomplish this reformation was to show the body and its features as an accelerated instrument of explanation.

Body Politics, referring to practices of which society tries to regulate control of the body, has been the cause of national debate in many issues and the Black First, American Second, series speaks directly to that theory. Hammons takes ownership of his body to deliver a message that challenges governmental procedures. He uses his body to source knowledge production and extracts a conversation about how black males are viewed by the current society which allowed him to stage an artistic protest instead of a physical one.

Barbara Kruger, uses her work Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989 as a catalyst to the debate of women’s rights in the ’80s and was produced to coincide with the Women’s March on Washington. There was a rising number of demonstrations and protests in the ’80s because of new anti-abortion laws that were going directly against the verdict of the Roe V. Wade Supreme Court Decision of 1973. Kruger’s work aligns the protests with the theory of Body Politics and control over the human body. 

This work with its large canvas and bold imagery almost yell at the viewer to take charge of their body. It presents the face of a woman divided into two with the negative split evenly down the middle almost presenting (again as referenced in Hammons’s work) an x-ray of the face. The duality seems to represent the people on both sides of the issue of the debates about women’s rights and who gets to decide.

The bold words of “Your Body Is A Battleground” speaks to how the war has changed from “As seen on TV” to within the female body. With the bold red and white Barbara invites the viewer to stop immediately and heed the words almost reminiscent of the war posters of the late 1940s and ’50s, when they placed bold directives such as “Join The Army!” with a strong figure to entice other potential citizens who were still undecided. By using art in the style of tabloid marketing and advertising, Kruger was able to address media politics in a voice that was familiar and effective. 

In this work, the body is used as a metaphor and a representation of a movement against the law. Kruger addresses the female population with action, encouraging them to seek knowledge and awareness of the current situation that affects them all. This call to action addresses a mental as well as a physical protest enabling the change in habit of women in society as it pertains to how they view their bodies and the rights and responsibilities in making choices. Like Hammons, the work subtly calls for a mental overhaul of the social norm with the body being the catalyst for the widespread debate.

Within the body politics structure, female bodies are seen to be vulnerable and not able to be “warrior-like” which Kruger challenges in this artwork. Adding what is seen to be a beautiful woman appropriated from a magazine, she also points to the view of women as objects in society and hinting at feminist views of the male gaze. These gender politics have determined who should be vulnerable and who commands respect. The male gaze in society has been seen as a patriarchal control over the body of a woman and Kruger uses the beauty of the female face to get the male viewer’s attention to the ultimate message. The female face in this work is seen as strong, confident, and direct, much different than what the societal norms are for women who were to be seen as docile and submitting to their male counterparts. Kruger uses the knowledge of “Second Wave” body politics to encourage women to fight against the politics that governed their bodies. By stimulating the consciousness of women and enacting a “no fear” visual element, it helped to break the long silence of women as it regards their bodies. 

Kruger presents a two-part view through this work inciting action from women during the period. Using strong images (strong confident female) alongside very direct and bold text with tons of emotion, Kruger hoped to provoke a new conversation about gender politics. According to feminist theory, the male and female bodies differ in the sense that women are more “natural” than men, more corporeal, and therefore seen a difference from their minds. In the sense of the corporeal, Kruger and Hammons relate within society as the black body and the female body has been underappreciated for their contributions to the growth of humanity and portrayed as “soulless” and in turn use their art as a way of combatting this perceived difference among the colonizing class. 

The male gaze and the presentation of the black body are also prevalent in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe which brings together the concepts of racial and gender politics of the body from the perspective of the white male in society. This gaze cites the “patriarchal power” of Mapplethorpe allowing him to assume his male role as the “looker” while the black male is relegated as the items to be perused at leisure. The Black Book, a collection of “idealized and homoerotic” nude photographs of naked black gay men, was looked upon as a very touchy project by Mapplethorpe. Embarrassed and outraged by its contents, many artists, theorists, and writers chose to put pen to paper to debate the relevance of this topic and how it affected black men and the artistic integrity of the works. Mapplethorpe’s representations of the black men in this book set the male gaze on its eye, with Mapplethorpe being a gay man himself, also in charge of the very device used to scrutinize (the camera), he was able to portray an alternate reality of the black body to the viewer, his reality.

Historian Kobena Mercer places this gaze in the proper perspective as he infers that the photos are a “cultural artifact in the ways that white people “look” at black people and how in this way of

looking, black male sexuality is perceived as something different, excessive, Other.” In the period when these photos were taken the gay male body was being attacked and criticized, he chose to use others as a cause for examination, ultimately separating his identity from that of the subjects. Mapplethorpe’s expose of The Black Book allowed the critics a duality of opinions about the work. On the one hand, the work completely stereotyped the black male body as a sexualized image, used only for desire or work, and on the other documented the gracefulness, power, and strength on display. Taking a queue from earlier sculptures such as Michelangelo’s marbled David, Mapplethorpe tries to push forward a conversation of maleness and blackness using the consistency of the nude through art that has gone to objectify and sometimes enhance the sexuality of a subject in history. Mapplethorpe prominently puts on display to the viewer through his “vision” that the greatest reward of the black male is his sexual prowess. Images such as Man in a Polyester Suit, which features prominently the penis of a black man and basically nothing else, are the only identifier of it being male or black in the photo leading the viewer to immediately look at its subject as an object. This places the black male body as an attraction giving the viewer an erotic source of pleasure without the permission of the model but with the permission of the photographer. A quote from art critic Holland Cotter describes this succinctly as “No face, no name, no person, just an anatomical fragment that translates into race = sex.”

This “ownership” of the body (or digital representation thereof) is reminiscent of the early days of the slave trade when black bodies were placed on display in public and news memos for sale. The Black Book has been said to reveal more about the pleasure-seeking of Mapplethorpe than it does to accentuate the abstract beauty of the “anonymous black men whose beautiful bodies we see depicted.” 

Mapplethorpe uses this book of works also as a question of gender politics of the Western art world by substituting the nude of the white female for the braun of the black male body. With Mapplethorpe being a gay man, he looked to question a male’s role in society as dominant or overarching and replacing that with a more harmonious visual, helps to soften the public’s view on black masculinity but at the expense of being critically judged due to the nature of its content. Using the philosophy of otherness, Mapplethorpe exhibits his subjects as different from their “political philosophy” and in their “non-conformity” to social norms where the black body is seen as the antitheses of American society. 

But how these work change the way bodies were viewed in society? I believe the consistency of action and boldness in the presentation and the messages are what tie these works together. Mapplethorpe’s works and the distorted or misrepresented meaning prompted artist Glenn Ligon to create and contention or retraction titled Notes on the Margin of The Black Book, 1991-93, which sought to “sort out the effect these images of black masculinity had on him as well as on others”. Barbara Kruger leads a revolution of text-based works that inspire street clothing brands and more and her message and design style has been the calling card to many works of protest. Hammons continues his message of black empowerment using common items to push the conversation and understanding of the black experience in America. They also touch on the key topics mentioned through this text referring to gender, race, and the theory of Otherness. These bodies, female, black, and gay were seen as abhorrent as racism itself, and through these works and practices of art, these artists were able to present new meaning, representations, and control over the body’s identity. 

The importance of these works lies in their place and time in history and the context in which they were created. Rooting themselves in protest, activist, and resistance style practices, these works sought to change the perception of the black, female, and gay bodies and by using the body as the main component of the political study, these works helped to inspire their peers and all affected by their respective struggles. Hammons aspired to show the strain, strength, and resilience of the black body and its relation to the ongoing civil rights struggles in 1968, Barbara Kruger aimed to take back ownership of the female body and oppose laws set in place to control choice at the Women’s March in 1989 and Mapplethorpe’s work caused an uproar on both sides leading to a demonstration in which his photos were displayed on the building in protest. These body politics helped to dismantle the oppressive laws and impact of the ruling class on those bodies they deemed “inferior” by expelling the essence contained within.

The body remains a hot topic in art with some of these same topics at the forefront. From Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, 1974 to Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, 2016, the use and presentation of the body and its status in society is constantly being challenged. These challenges are always a catalyst for global change and improvement without the physical war and loss that usually comes with it. The body is the most consistent thing across humanity and I believe it is the easiest topic to engage humanity and allow them to look into themselves for the correct answer. These artists are a prime example of protesting, activating, and demonstrating while still attempting to educate their audience on issues and their practice will continue to influence artists to follow in their footsteps. These conversations through art justify the practice as a contributing factor to the development and its importance as a voice for the sometimes voiceless.


From the Vapour of Gasoline at White Cube, Mason’s Yard

From the Vapour of Gasoline at White Cube, Mason’s Yard

When I stumbled upon the title of this exhibition I immediately thought about the state of the country. In the United States, you could say that the current tone for the average citizen would be filled with worry, unexpected events, and the questioning of what it really means to be an American. “From the Vapour of Gasoline” at White Cube’s Mason’s Yard space, a group show featuring a caucus of artists works speak directly to humanity with a sinister yet clever disposition, immediately challenges that identity with images that conjure thoughts of a time where injustice reared its ugly face leading most citizens to question their place in a society that is supposed to protect their liberties and freedoms, or so that was the initial story.

The title of the exhibit borrows its name from “Peruvian Maid”, 1985 artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose trademark scribble can be seen prominently in the work, almost suggesting the evidence of smoke without seeing the fire that usually succeeds. Presenting images of “Americana” like the Dollar Bill and The U.S. Flag and pairing them with text and visuals that simulate violence and poverty, almost create a relationship that speaks far beyond the original origin of these images and it’s intended meaning.

“RIOT”, by Christopher Wool, the first work that you directly encounter upon entering the gallery, along with Cady Noland’s “Flag” immediately triggers a feeling of recent events involving the destruction of major cities because of what was promised by the symbol of “Freedom”. It seems that the values of what the flag really means are continuously challenged by citizens who feel that America should hold true to its promises and follow through on the promises made. 

But with recent events like the protest of the Flag by Colin Kaepernick and countless other NFL players and the killing of unarmed black men, it seems almost fitting that Robert Gober’s “Drain” assists the viewer in questioning whether those morals stand true or are they just another failed promise of the American Dream. It’s so fitting in the sense that if you weren’t already familiar with the work of Gober, you would think the gallery’s plumber somehow fell asleep at the wheel. 

Adding to this are the visuals of double transparency of a dollar bill staring directly at David Hammons’ work Untitled (body print), 1975, depicting a black man with his head held high, draped in the same symbol of a country sworn to uphold the ideals of its citizens. 

As you make your way down the steps into the lower part of the gallery you’re greeted with one of Richard Prince’s famous “Joke” artworks that provided a light-hearted laugh as you enter the second space that houses the rest of the exhibition. The laugh was short-lived as I made my right turn into the photos by Larry Clark which goes on to represent the ills of society.  Images of prostitution, gunshot wounds, drug, and spousal abuse, space is especially fitting, hidden almost out of sight, speaking to how these societal issues go unnoticed and untreated.

It seems that this show chooses to exacerbate self-image and play along with the ideologies of what seems to be the ephemeral meaning of these symbols. What is American society? Do we all fit? Do we each have an individual voice or are we susceptible to mass media and distorted images that shape what we believe to be a reality? Does the American Flag still stand for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness or has all of that been sold out for the growth of the corporate machine? I wonder if that was in the thoughts of Barbara Kruger when she created her Untitled (Cast of Characters), 2016, featuring bold white text on black canvas elucidating a mixture of personalities that could easily pass for a representation of the art world. 

As an American citizen viewing the show in another country, I don’t know if I should feel embarrassed or enlightened by the content of the show. Having an outside-looking-in approach definitely allows me to think about the works in the proper context without the chatter of vulgarity spewed by other countrymen whose feelings seem to be hurt at the sentiments displayed, which seems almost to be another snapshot of where we are today. 

In the press release for the show, a key sentence stuck out to me. “These artists sought by different means to reacquaint their audience with the uncomfortable truths beyond the American Dream.” This made me chuckle because if you pose this question to Americans, most will act like they don’t know what you mean. “America is the greatest country in the world!” you may hear a few say, I tend to agree, but I’m also not oblivious to the fact that we have work to do. Maybe having this exhibit on the lawn of the White House would be a good place to start? Hmmm, let me think about that and get back to you.

Written by Badir McCleary

Exhibit: From the Vapour of Gasoline

White Cube Mason’s Yard

25-26 Mason’s Yard, SW1Y 6BU