AUGUST 19, 2017
I ENTER THE MUSEUM and pass a series of ceiling-length black panels ornamented with white text. I don’t stop to consider the panels at the time, but they remind me of writing on a chalkboard. A reproduction of Amy Sherald’s Pythagore (2016) hangs on a banner outside, and I’m drawn by the painted figure on whose face I find the same pair of tortoiseshell glasses I wear. The man in the painting holds a hat to his chest, exposing the skin on his right hand. His left remains tucked inside his pocket. I only see the man’s face, neck, and visible hand; a jacket covers his chest and arms. Pants shield his legs until the painting ends just above his knees; the frame excludes his body below his thigh.
I’ve never seen myself inside a painting before. The man doesn’t look like me so much as he reminds me that I can be viewed. I want to know what it means to be black, to be represented as black, in a museum that defines itself as African American. I want to understand the consequences of displaying black bodies for the sake of “research” and “public enrichment,” in accordance with the California African American Museum’s mission statement, which claims to represent “California and the western United States.” I see these as political, institutional assertions with consequences that reflect the values they attempt to demonstrate.
The term “institutional memory” refers to the collective memory shared by a group. The term also implicates the superorganism-like institutions that produce, organize, and regulate cultural histories. Institutions can alter our perception: If we do not believe what we cannot see, it’s also possible for our vision to blind us — especially within a curated context — to only tell one side of a story. What, then, is the effect of vision on memory, especially when that vision is granted by an institutional body?
Individuals sustain institutions. But personal legacies that escape institutional endorsement can disappear from sight and mind. Artists such as Adrian Piper and Andrea Fraser have also identified institutional spaces, such as museums, as sites for inquiry and investigation. The two artists, among many others, use institutional facilities to house sculptural interventions and performances.
Following this tradition, Gary Simmons’s wall drawing, Fade to Black, retrofits the California African American Museum’s lobby into a site-specific installation. Displayed in the manner of white paint on a black chalkboard using Simmons’s signature “erasure technique,” each panel extends a list of film titles, embedding decontextualized information into the museum’s interior.
Law of the Jungle, Judge Priest, The Blood of Jesus, Murder on Lenox Avenue, King of the Zombies: Simmons produces the residue of a performance the viewer can never see. The titles index other works that — having taken place outside the exhibition, under the direction of several unique authors — he smuggles into the museum as names detached from the films they detail. Meanwhile, the installation draws attention to how data files into the brain without the aid of conscious perception; it throws the efficacy and nature of collective action into question.
Even without recognizing the titles, viewers receive — as if from an invisible source — enough information to understand the names belong to films created by black filmmakers working within a shared genre. Their naming conventions and smeared lettering permit us to recognize their pulp genealogies while the lack of contextual information — the installation has no didactic — allows Simmons to produce an enigma: what can and cannot be represented? In the same gesture, Simmons reveals the ingredients required to produce an allegory constitute nothing more than a catalog or sequence. His decision to use text, names, and white paint above material reminiscent of a blackboard instead of bodies defines another set of values; he does not illustrate or graphically represent the black body.
Another question surfaced as I continued to explore the show: what do we call an external account that jams itself into our individual minds, transforming an external, and perhaps unconscious, experience into a collective narrative? In this case, Simmons’s series of names forms a list. The list functions as a container. The container produces a referential web that spirals out in all directions, attaching to other names, containers, and webs in the process — a museum dedicated to African-American cultural objects, for example. But what lies at the bottom of this conceptual gesture?
The installation will be destroyed at the exhibition’s close on July 31, 2018. Only the media generated to document the installation, such as pictures taken by museumgoers and staff, will remain as portraits of a lost moment. Until then, Simmons’s installation also completes a sculptural function: it rewires our perception of space and time. The drawing, by decorating the trafficked space of the museum lobby, colors and conditions the atmosphere of the work it surrounds.
Simmons contrasts the representational strategies deployed in text-based, conceptual works against the portraits featured in Fade to Black’s sister exhibition, Face to Face, where Sherald’s painting is on display. Fade to Black, operating in counterpoint to Face to Face, suggests collective memory distorts the record it attempts to hold. Referencing works not included in the exhibition, Simmons reveals other absences, aversions, and avoided histories present in Face to Face. The protective clothing in Sherald’s painting reappears in several portraits in the exhibition. In fact, there is no photographic account of a naked black body in Face to Face — no raw, black bodies for the eyes to consume. I don’t think this was an accident. (John Edward’s Prince might count as an exception to this rule, but the photograph shows the exposed back of a man wearing a do-rag with his head turned to expose his sidelong glance. The black-and-white photograph, continuing a larger thematic issue present in the work of many African-American artists, does not represent the body in color or divulge a taboo portion of the body.)
Instead we receive numerous portraits that manipulate clothing, paint, and abstraction to secret the body. The exposed parts, most often the face and hands, offer the body in a style that fits safely within the confines of commercial studio portraiture. This may be because a majority of the portraits come from the same set of collectors — Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen, V. Joy Simmons, Janine Sherman Barrois, and Lyndon Barrois — but it also might point toward the commercial photography and uplifting, often spiritual, paintings African-American families use to adorn their homes.
According to a museum didactic, “Face to Face brings together contemporary portraiture from Southern California collections, in recognition of the vital role private collectors play in supporting institutions and artists from Los Angeles and beyond.” The didactic continues, suggesting the museum recognizes
the important role these collectors play in helping to establish a platform for critical practices to develop and thrive, Face to Face focuses on one of the longest-standing genres of art — portraiture — in order to ask how contemporary artists, and in particular artists of the African diaspora, are revitalizing, redefining, and expanding this traditional subject matter across media.
However, the didactic does not challenge how private collectors reduce, confine, and limit the role of portraiture. The narrative it implements does not home in on the presence of family portraits in African-American homes, which would provide a discernible link between the African-American family, the bedrock of the African-American community, and the African American Museum, its institutional extension. Instead, the text belabors the outsized role collectors play in supporting artists, inserting a European model of collecting and exhibiting art into an African-American context.
I would like to paint a separate picture. The works exhibited in Face to Face journey between commercial, documentary, and fine arts practices in their examination of portraiture; the form is malleable enough for the viewer to insert him or herself into the image, as I had done earlier on my arrival at the opening. It’s important to note that a certain type of black body is on display in Sherald’s painting: a body identified and valued by the type of clothing it wears above its skin color. As an African-American man, the show provides a space for me to experiment with the notion that a body like mine could be placed inside a curatorial space, such as a museum or gallery, but it also demonstrates the political and economic decisions that accompany such placement. It also forces another issue into view: institutions devoted to marginalized communities work within the same structures they attempt to resist.
Portraits often surface questions of beauty, which we define within relative, cultural parameters. Walking through the California African American Museum, a self-identified African-American space, I began to wonder who can make such a claim. Culture produced by a public institution comes at a price: If the portraits contained in Face to Face serve a curatorial vision tied to an institutional goal, can they be separated from that context? Can a museum affiliated with African-American history and culture separate itself from the norms and views of the populations it means to serve?
For example, Todd Gray’s photographic portraits Untitled from the Shaman Series (2004) and Untitled from the Shaman Series (2005) show a black man covered in what appears to be soap suds. Feasibly naked from head to waist beneath the foaming soap, the man is immersed in a white frame. He stands before a white background. White acrylic paint applied to the image smears over his face and distorts his visage. If this white erasure operates as a commentary or criticism of white supremacy, it also obfuscates the body underneath from our view. The haphazard soap and paint constitute a gesture less domesticating than the clothes present in other images, but it’s debatable whether this decision critiques or absorbs white supremacy. The use of white paint present in both exhibitions suggests that African-American artists struggle to separate the means of resistance from the cultural productions they wish to denounce. Rashid Johnson’s Thurgood in the Hour of Chaos (2009) features a circle-and-cross formation over a grayscale image. The photolithograph’s title alludes to a species of time, an hour of chaos, that I believe reflects the radical ambiguity that exists in the center of show: Is it possible to represent black art without referencing, drawing attention to, or reconstructing whiteness? Are African-American institutions suppressing this chaos when they showcase work that acclimates to the perceptions of their audiences? Does the white paint, and its implicit critique on white supremacy, serve as a bandage that prevents us from perceiving a larger, festering wound?
Moments of vulnerability arose at several points throughout the show, challenging the narrative in my head. Noah Gray’s representation of the Temptations in Temptations (2012) recalled the studio portraiture associated with midcentury Motown album covers. The men in their uniform tuxedos arranged in series on a staircase rebuts the idea that nakedness trumps pattern and form. The exposed neckline and collarbone that repeats across Brenna Youngblood’s The Army (2005) glitter while offering modulations of the same woman in a red dress wearing different hairstyles popular among African-American women. The faces, in their number, occupy the space between a nightmare and a dream, forcing me to wonder how they would be read by the retinal scanner on my phone. I stopped and prayed before the bare, exposed feet at the bottom of Jackie Nickerson’s Will (2013). The toes, the cracked skin, and the dust collecting along the ankle absorb our attention, turning it away from the wire that erupts from the center of the photograph, where a young black boy’s hand veils his countenance. The boy’s blue rubber sandals, like the clothes he wears, are the only hint we have that might reveal the location where the photograph was taken. The boy stands in darkness — he turns away from the camera toward the outside of the frame, the destination of his thoughts unknown.
I consider drafting an anatomy of exposed body parts to map the black appendages where they had been made visible in the Face to Face portraits on the bus ride home. With the diaries of the Franz Kafka in my hand, which I rotate and gaze at for a few moments, I take down the following note: “The face is a means to avoid the skull.” I want to see more of the interior than an institution has to offer. I want to see the invisible structures beneath what aims to protect us.
Images courtesy of the California African American Museum.