Guest contributor Jonathan Stevenson / Art and race constitute a delicate and provocative subject. Two recent exhibitions and a documentary film handle it with great intelligence, nuance, and energy.
[Image: Jordan Casteel, Sterling, 2014, oil on canvas, 54 x 72 inches.]
Thomas Allen Harris’s film Through A Lens Darkly, inspired by Debora Willis’s book Reflections in Black; A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present, is a cogent and moving documentary on the role that photography has played in both negating and affirming the place of blacks in American culture. Unsurprisingly, white photographers did the negating, and black photographers – the only ones their black subjects could look in the eye during the early days of the medium – the affirming. The former depicted blacks as servile at best and thugs at worst, and some cast southern lynchings as a spectator sports to accompany picnics and outdoor concerts. Gordon Parks, James VanDerZee, and Roy DeCarava reinforced the dignity of African-Americans, as patient early black political leaders like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois would have wanted it, while downplaying the assimilative appearances those men advocated and emphasizing the arduousness of the post-emancipation struggle for social equality from Reconstruction through Jim Crow and the civil rights movement.
If at present American racial equality is fitfully advancing, race relations remain marred by retrograde episodes like the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and movements like the Tea Party, which signal a heavy national residue of racism. They make exhibitions such as Nick Cave’s sardonically ebullient show “Made by Whites for Whites” at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea grimly resonant. In Cave’s sculptures (pictured above), found post-slavery objects like spittoons and lawn jockeys that archly connect blacks to servitude are camouflaged with dense frameworks of ceramic birds and plants and porcelain fruit. He is angling for “empowerment through reuse” that presumably shames the perpetrators while steeling their victims.
Cave’s centerpieces inexorably recall whites’ demeaning photographs of blackface actors and subservient minstrel types chronicled in Through A Lens Darkly, and demonstrate that new generation of black artists still have their work cut out for them. As the film indicates, photographers like Renee Cox are on the case.
Her picture Yo Mama’s Pieta (pictured above) of a black Mary cradling a black Jesus’s body, in its deadpan humor, conveys both the exclusion of blacks from wider cultural iconography and their pointed intention to resist that exclusion. Carrie Mae Weems’s knowing captions on repurposed antebellum daguerreotypes of slaves, originally commissioned by Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz to showcase blacks’ inferiority, targets dehumanizing stereotypes by heightening, as she has put it, “critical awareness around the way in which these photographs were intended.”
Harris’s documentary also suggests that persistent portrayals of African-Americans as both victims and criminals have probably, in spite of the predominantly peaceful character of black political movements, reinforced the component of violence in the self-images of contemporary black men. Some artists, however, are taking a more transitional, forward-leaning approach. Brooklyn painter Jordan Casteel’s show “Visible Man” – a pun on Ralph Ellison’s iconic novel Invisible Man – was recently up at Sargent’s Daughters on the Lower East Side.
She makes large-scale portraits of naked black men, gazing at the viewer, relaxing in comfortable domestic settings. Using bright, matte colors and thick brushstrokes, Casteel creates images that contrast with stereotypical depictions of black men in motion – whether as star athletes, swaggering rappers, or baleful hoods. Like Alice Neel, Casteel depicts friends and acquaintances in quiet, intimate settings, conveying a sense of contentment and security. But, quite in line with the more agitated and dark work of Harris and Cave, Casteel’s work also effectively challenges white Americans to ask themselves how comfortable they are with the prospect of true racial parity.
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