The energy of “Freestyle,” the Studio Museum in Harlem’s exhibition of 28 African American artists curated by Thelma Golden, is greater than the show itself. Seeing so much new work by so many young and unknown or emerging artists is thrilling. There is enough dynamic and promising art on hand to say it’s a good show, and enough not-so-good work to say it could have been better. Although the exhibition is not thematic, many of the issues addressed in “Freestyle” are familiar: social cruelty, the bottomless confusion of the divided self, the crushing weight of being defined from without. Nevertheless, urgency, emergency, and bitterness have been replaced by something that could be called radical intelligence. Humor is prevalent, be it twisted or covert; answers are understood as elusive and illusory; the moral failure of America is often at the fore but never moralized about.
“The best thing about my show,” Golden told me excitedly, “is that I have no colon.” Her reference was not gastrointestinal. It was to the title of her exhibition, which is not followed by a colon and a banal or overbearing subtitle. “Freestyle,” co-organized with Christine Y. Kim, stands on its own. Like a lightbulb, it needs no explanation: The minute you see it, you know why you needed to see it.
The art world likes to think we live in what George W.S. Trow so eloquently called “the context of no context,” meaning divisions have blurred, there are no movements, no one big thing. As Trow put it, there is “the context of one,” you, and “the context of 250 million,” America. All the rest is in-between or indistinct. The idea sounds seductive. On closer examination, however, we may be nothing but context. Look around any art opening: People of a certain age predominate; particular fashions are the norm. Art school backgrounds are standard, alpha males and alpha females recognizable. The New York neighborhoods these openings take place in, as well as the neighborhoods the attendees live in, are limited to probably four or five. But more than that, most of the people in these rooms are still predominantly white. * “Freestyle” simultaneously turns that context inside out and leaves it untouched. Other than the fact that all the artists are black, the stats are typical. About a third of the participants are women. Every artist went to art school; nine to Skowhegan, six to the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. Half live in New York, seven in California. Perhaps the juiciest statistic about “Freestyle” is that the average age of these artists is a young 32, which may be why this show feels so fresh.
If “Freestyle” works, it’s because of what it does with its dual contexts. Rather than being a show of p.c. or unoriginal art about being black, “Freestyle” is stylistically free, hardcore without being hard-line. The diversity in this exhibition is the kind that’s always been a hallmark of this museum: the aesthetic kind. Formalist and figurative painting shares the stage with photography and video projection. Golden says her show is “post-multicultural, post-identity, post-conceptual, and post-black.” Maybe, but more important, the artists in “Freestyle” seem to know two things: that James Baldwin was right when he said, “No true account of Black life can be contained in the English language,” and that Miles Davis was onto something when he said, “If white people really knew what was on most black people’s minds, it would scare them to death.”
In “Freestyle” that scare is often laced with irony or a dose of self-abnegating laughter. It’s there in Rico Gatson’s absorbing digitalized video projection of the cannibal dance in King Kong when the “natives” lead Fay Wray to sacrifice. It’s there in Dave McKenzie’s terrifying, ludicrous video featuring the artist twisting and jerking like a spasmodic demon or someone who’s been shot. McKenzie manages to illuminate the murky terrain between private turmoil and social indignation. Susan Smith-Pinelo turns another stereotype on its ear in Sometimes, her politically way-incorrect, va-va-voom video featuring the artist shaking her big breasts to Michael Jackson’s “Working Day and Night.” Tana Hargest’s Bitter Nigger, Inc. Web site offers various products, including a wearable patch for white people to decrease their feelings of entitlement and a holographic white friend for black people who want to hail a cab or rent an apartment. Sanford Biggers makes us see how close yet how far apart the two Americas are in his split-screen home movie projection picturing his childhood birthday parties, picnics, and field trips alongside those of a white friend. Just as the writer Frantz Fanon described being “battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave ships, and above all: ‘Sho’ good eatin’,’ ” these artists stab at you with vengeful pangs of recognition and disquieting laughter.
Two sculptors stand out. Eric Wesley’s Kicking Ass is a full-scale, kickass model of a donkey who has knocked a hole in the museum wall. Even better is his Mall, a messy pile that’s part Claes Oldenburg, part Frank Gehry, and part out-of-control architectural model. Adia Millett’s Defining Absence is a tabletop rendition of one of those low-rent apartment complexes you’re always seeing on Cops. Millett lovingly furnishes each of the apartments so that different levels of aspiration, apathy, or abjectness are apparent.
Several painters look particularly good. Laylah Ali’s comic-book insanities are meticulously rendered nodules of narrative ambiguity, while Julie Mehretu continues to improve in drawings that show her injecting more figurative elements and thus more clarity into her work. Similarly, Trenton Doyle Hancock makes good on one of the works he contributed to last year’s Whitney Biennial with Friends Indeed, a marvelous black-and-white tangle of words, shapes, and collaged elements. Surprisingly, the very conventional biomorphic, color-field abstractions of Jerald Ieans are also engaging. Kori Newkirk’s curtainlike paintings made of plastic pony beads and artificial hair are gimmicky, but his giant pomade silhouette of a police helicopter is effective. Finally, Senam Okudzeto’s wall of telephone bills covered with fighting women is decoratively impressive, even if the artist almost blunts the point in her catalog interview, claiming her art is “a Marxist critique of international market time as one of the greatest effects of global capitalism.”
Which brings us to the weakness of “Freestyle.” In addition to too many mediocre paintings involving hair products, geometric shapes on the floor, or pictures of superheroes, fairy tale figures, and teddy bears, there are too many undigested or otherwise unaltered photographic images on hand. In spite of Golden’s claim that “Freestyle” is “post-conceptual,” much of the work in it is nothing but hackneyed conceptualism. There are photos of fire, black men, airports, empty rooms, subways, high schools, and city streets that do nothing and take you nowhere. Any meaning ascribed to these pictures comes from outside the work. The essential act of imbedding thought in material hasn’t taken place. There is enough of this kind of blandness to mar this otherwise pulsing and occasionally brash exhibition. In order to vie for curatorial excellence, Golden must add “post-academic” to her list of things to aspire to. If she gets there, her shows at the Studio Museum could get really interesting.
Greg Tate interviews Thelma Golden.