Black Is, Black Ain’t

June 27 - October 17

Overview

Installation view
Hank Willis Thomas, "The Johnson Family (from the Unbranded series)," 2006/1981, lambda photograph, 42.75 inches by 44.75 inches
Installation view
Mickalene Thomas, "Lovely Six Foota," 2007, C-print, 56.25 inches by 67.25 inches
Installation view
Installation view detail of William Pope.L's "Skin Set Drawings," 2003, ink and graphite on paper, 20 parts, 8 1/2 x 11 inches each
Opening reception
 
"Black Is, Black Ain’t" took its title from Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man" and featured 26 artists whose work offered glimpses into one of the most timely and complex issues in contemporary American culture: race and “blackness.”
 
The exhibition explored a shift in the rhetoric of race from an earlier emphasis on inclusion to a present moment where racial identity is being simultaneously rejected and retained. The exhibition brought together works by black and non-black artists whose work together examined a moment where the cultural production of so-called “blackness” is concurrent with efforts to make race socially and politically irrelevant.
 
Artists in the exhibition included: Terry Adkins, Edgar Arceneaux, Elizabeth Axtman, Jonathan Calm, Paul D'Amato, Deborah Grant, Todd Gray, Shannon Jackson, Thomas Johnson, Jason Lazarus, David Levinthal, Glenn Ligon, David McKenzie, Rodney McMillian, Jerome Mosley, Virginia Nimarkoh, Demetrius Oliver, Sze Lin Pang, Carl Pope, William Pope.L, Robert A. Pruitt, Randy Regier, Daniel Roth, Joanna Rytel, Andres Serrano, Hank Willis Thomas, and Mickalene Thomas.
 
The exhibition was curated by Hamza Walker and organized by The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago and made possible by an Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award, with additional support from the Woods Fund of Chicago.
 
For generous support of this exhibition and the 2009-2010 exhibition series, the Artspace gratefully acknowledges the Richard J. Stern Foundation, the H&R Block Foundation, the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, and Boulevard Brewing Company.

Checklist

 

Edgar Arceneaux 
Failed Attempt at Crystallization, 2002
glass, sugar, crystals, wood, mirror, book
55 ¾ x 18 x 20 inches
Courtesy of Collection of Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
 
Terry Adkins
Darkwater Record, 2003
tape recorders, porcelain bust, excerpts from "Socialism and the American Negro" speech by W.E.B. Du Bois
33 x 12 x 13 inches
Courtesy of the artist
 
Elizabeth Axtman
American Classics, 2006
video
3 minutes 30 seconds
Courtesy of the artist
 
Jonathan Calm
Isaacs Runoff #1, 2008
pigment print
50 x 40 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Caren Golden Fine Art, NY
 
Jonathan Calm
Baruch Runoff #2, 2008
pigment print
40 x 50 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Caren Golden Fine Art, NY
 
Paul D'Amato
624 W. Division, 2007
archival inkjet print
39 x 47 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago
 
Paul D'Amato
Bedroom Door, 2007
archival inkjet print
47 x 39 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago
 
Paul D'Amato
Tashma, 2007
archival inkjet print
39 x 47 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago
 
Deborah Grant
Capsizing the Niggerati, 2006
paper, ink, acrylic on Arches W.C. paper
4 parts, 24 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches each
Courtesy of the artist and Dunn and Brown Contemporary, Dallas
 
Todd Gray
7-34-08.5.26.05, 2005
archival pigment print
21 x 16 inches
Courtesy of the artist
 
Todd Gray
5-26-05.12.33.38, 2005
archival pigment print
21 x 16 inches
Courtesy of the artist
 
Todd Gray
Horse, 2003
archival pigment print
34 x 28 inches
Courtesy of the artist
 
Shannon Jackson
White Noises, 1993
video
14 minutes
Courtesy of the artist
 
Thomas Johnson
What a Black Man Feels Like, 2004
video
29 minutes
Courtesy of the artist
 
Jason Lazarus
Standing at the Grave of Emmitt Till, The Day of Exhumation, June 1, 2005, 2005
archival inkjet print
37 x 50 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Chicago
 
David Levinthal
Four untitled works from the Blackface series
Polaroids
24 x 20 inches each
Courtesy of the artist
 
Glenn Ligon
Warm Broad Glow, 2005
neon installation
36 x 192 inches
Courtesy of Sender Collection
 
David McKenzie
Babel, 2000
video
13 minutes, 48 seconds
Courtesy of the artist
 
Rodney McMillian
Chair, 2003
found overstuffed chair
33 x 38 x 33 inches
Courtesy of Collection Gaby and Wilhelm Schuermann
 
Rodney McMillian
Untitled (in progress), 2003
oil on canvas
27 x 27 inches
Courtesy of Collection Gaby and Wilhelm Schuermann
 
Jerome Mosley
Untitled T-Shirts (P.R.O.J.E.C.T.S.), 2006
t-shirts
Courtesy of the artist
 
 Virginia Nimarkoh
Nubian Queen, 1999
13 drawings by portrait artists in Leicester Square, London
19 3/4 x 15 3/4 and smaller
Courtesy of the artist
 
Virginia Nimarkoh
Untitled #1 (After Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1988), 2001
C-print
50 x 39 1/2 inches
Courtesy of the artist
 
Demetrius Oliver
Till, 2004
digital chromogenic print
27 1/4 x 36 1/4 inches
Courtesy of Private Collection
 
Sze Lin Pang
Fetichito, 2006
mixed media
22 x 16 x 42 inches
Courtesy of the artist
 
Carl Pope
Exhibition poster, 2008
24 x 18 inches
 
William Pope.L
Skin Set Drawings, 2003
ink and graphite on paper
20 parts, 8 1/2 x 11 inches each
Courtesy of the artist
 
William Pope.L
One Substance, Eight Supports, One Situation, 2008
8 pine shelves with flour cones
dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist
 
William Pope.L
A Negro Sleeps Beneath the Susquehanna (son version), 1998
video
12 minutes
Courtesy of the artist
 
Robert A. Pruitt
For Whom the Bell Curves, 2004
12 gold chains
47 x 60 inches
Courtesy of Collection Studio Museum in Harlem
 
Randy Regier
Impending Future Bus, 2004
mixed media
56 x 12 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches
Courtesy of the artist
 
Daniel Roth
Cabrini Green Forest (Portal), 2004
two framed drawings, one black and white photograph, one color photograph, and one fiberglass sculpture with colored water
Courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago
 
Joanna Rytel
To Think Things You Don't Want To, 2005
video
22 minutes
Courtesy of the artist
 
Andres Serrano
The Interpretation of Dreams (White Nigger), 2001
cibachrome, silicone, Plexiglas
60 x 49 1/2 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, NY
 
Andres Serrano
Woman with Infant, 1996
cibachrome, silicone, plexiglas
60 x 49 1/2 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, NY
 
Hank Willis Thomas
The Johnson Family (from the Unbranded series), 2006/1981
lambda photograph
42 3/4 x 44 3/4 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
 
Hank Willis Thomas
It's About Time, 2006
light-jet print mounted on foamboard
84 x 30 x 24 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
 
Mickalene Thomas
Lovely Six Foota, 2007
C-print
56.25 x 67.25 inches
Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery
 
 

Essay

Domino Effect
Hamza Walker

 

Race is one of the more disputed of life’s undisputed facts. But what kind of fact is race? Discredited as the source of any substantive biological difference, race has been reduced to formal visible differences that are no differences at all. In that regard, there is only a human race still troubled by categories of our own making; categories that have taken on a socio-political life of their own. Rather than an immutable framework belonging to a natural order, race, as a modernist construct par excellence, would depend on institutions and their ideological underpinnings for its form and content. Which is to say race is a concept of all too human proportion, one that arguably does not exist outside the dark and dubious ends towards which it has been put to use. Although a biological fiction, it remains a social fact whose history more than compensates for all that science disavows.

With respect to African-Americans, the public discourse on race is hardly suffering for want of incidence. A constellation of arbitrary events from recent memory includes the Don Imus affair; the trial of the Jena Six; the NAACP’s staged burial of the “N” word; the questionable distribution of hurricane Katrina relief funds; “Straight Thuggin’ Ghetto Parties” at The University of Chicago (where fun purportedly comes to die, a 187, no doubt); the ironic revelation that Barack Obama and Dick Cheney are eighth cousins; the not so ironic revelation that Al Sharpton is the descendant of slaves owned by the family of the late senator Strom Thurmond; the Supreme Court’s striking down of school integration plans in Louisville and Seattle; and last but not least, Obama’s presidential candidacy. Our so-called “obsession” with race reflects an anxious optimism insofar as race relations are a monitor of social progress. The dream bequeathed us by the Civil Rights Movement of being able to disregard an individual’s race entirely is as cherished as any constitutional ideal. As Obama eloquently noted in what is now referred to simply as “The Speech,” this dream makes the pursuit of a more perfect union anything but an abstraction. Transcending race, however, has proven a somewhat paradoxical task, one fraught with contention as our efforts to become less race conscious serve to make us more race conscious.

Yet, claims to racial identity have become suspect as the concept of race is irrevocably steeped in the rhetoric of biological difference. Critics such as Kwame Anthony Appiah instead favor the passage of race into culture, a notion which aligns itself with a Civil Rights era struggle for a group’s right to self-definition under cultural auspices. The reduction of “cultural self-determination” to the now pervasive term “blackness,” however, is antithetical to Appiah’s concept, as the “ness” implies that culture is an extension of skin color. Under these circumstances, “black culture” would represent the reification of race, in which case anything black people do is the precipitation of race. But more importantly, “blackness,” as an uncritical yet willful conflation of race and culture, stands in stark contrast to current efforts to make race socially and politically irrelevant. If the dismantling of affirmative action is any indication, then calling attention to race as the means to address inequality is considered at odds with the formal equality undergirding liberalism. To borrow a phrase from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, “Black Is, Black Ain’t.” Using that as its title, this exhibition surveys a moment in which race is retained yet is simultaneously rejected.

Given that an exhibition of all African-American artists no longer passes for one about race, the discourse of race, as it resides in the visual arts in the broadest sense, is a very diffuse affair. Race is no less mercurial and complex as an organizing principle for an exhibition than it is a tricky issue in general. Just as one might ask what, one might also ask where is race.

Needless to say, figuration remains a staple for the representation of race as it is unimaginable without the body. Rather than projecting a secure sense of racialized identity, however, several of the artists in the exhibition problematize the skin’s ability to signify, resorting to disfiguration to deny easy recourse to the body as the locus of an essentialized self (Gray, McKenzie, Serrano). Conceived in terms of difference, race is not the province of a single group or individual. A notable shift since the watershed years of multiculturalism has been the emergent discourse of “whiteness,” which finds conspicuous expression in monologue-based performance/video work of a deeply psychological order (Jackson, Johnson, Rytel).

The reification of race is most apparent in the stereotype, a subject the likes of Kara Walker took up with a vengeance over a decade ago. Black is, Black Ain’t examines the stereotype in all the discrete objecthood of negrobilia (Levinthal) and at the conceptual level through text-based works of absurdist humor (Pope.L). This last description also applies to the other side of this poster designed by Carl Pope as his contribution to the exhibition.

Along with class and gender, race forms a triad in which it is unable to be seen as an autonomous characteristic. The demolition of almost all of Chicago’s high-rise housing projects, including the infamous Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor homes (Good Times no more), serves as an extended meditation on the inextricable link between race and class. As icons of inner city poverty, these structures reflect race as dependent on if not produced through the structure of inequality (Calm, D’Amato, McMillian, Mosley, Pruitt, Roth). With respect to gender, the chief strategy to derail entrenched theories of biological determinism was to emphasize gender’s performative dimension. Staged photography and role-playing remain central to an investigation into the tropes of beauty, desire, and resistance (Nimarkoh, M. Thomas), with the upshot in one instance being the delightful reduction of race to camp melodrama courtesy of Hollywood’s use of passing as a plot device (Axtman).

There are also works that, for want of a better term, are just plain old soulful in their merger of style and content, as well as wit and poetry, where it is not only what you say but how you say it (Ligon, Pope, Arceneaux, Pruitt). Those works that partake of what might be called a “black aesthetic” find their ironic corollary in a strand of appropriation whose object is a black romanticism eternally frozen in the 1970s (Nimarkoh, Pang, H. Thomas, M. Thomas).

Last but not least, there is history. The reopening of the Emmett Till case in 2005 would question whatever closure the Civil Rights Movement achieved through its legislative victories. Rather than an exercise in nostalgia, several works in the exhibition portray the era of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Till case in particular, as sites of unresolved soul searching at the level of national identity (Adkins, Grant, Lazarus, Oliver, Regier).

By inseparably linking race and culture, the term “blackness” counters a notion of culture divorced from race as that split might downplay the extent to which race was institutionally formalized and the very real role race continues to play in shaping our society. Moreover, “blackness” bluntly begs that a distinction be made between race as the basis of discrimination on the one hand, and solidarity as it is sought by a group already racially defined on the other. The latter might sound like a mise en abyme of sorts, in which the category creates the group that in turn creates the category etc., but it is more a domino effect, where a socially reproducible pattern acquires an inertia resulting in a concept that becomes its own cause, and effect, for that matter. As for transcending race, here we are, still somewhere under the rainbow where none of us is absolved from history. To put that in a positive light, we should take stock of where the discourse was sixteen years ago following the video-taped beating of Rodney King. Regardless of how you vote, you have to admit, watching history being made is better than watching it repeat itself.

Events

June 26 Fri
June 27 Sat
September 3 Thu
September 17 Thu
September 30 Wed
October 4 Sun
October 16 Fri

Press

Press Release

“Black Is, Black Ain’t” to open June 27 at H&R Block Artspace
KCAI website |
Thu, 2009-06-11

Race is no less mercurial and complex as an organizing principle for an exhibition than it is a tricky issue in general.

Selected Press

In its 10 Years, Block Artspace Has Become Art Institute's Intellectual Flagship.
The Kansas City Star |
Tue, 2009-11-24

Block Artspace celebrates it's 10th anniversary this month -- and a stimulating and productive decade it has been.

Art Sparks Deep Feelings, Discussion of Racism
The Kansas City Star |
Sun, 2009-10-18

Art often articulates complicated subjects that people either avoid or struggle to describe.

"Black Is, Black Ain't" at the H&R Block Artspace
KCUR |
Mon, 2009-08-03

Twenty-six artists explore the history of civil rights, skin color, race, and its connection to class.

What Color Makes Art?
The Kansas City Star |
Sun, 2009-07-05

In a provocative exhibit, 26 artists probe issues of race