“Midnight’s Daydream” is the Studio Museum in Harlem’s fabulous new exhibit showcasing work by its three 2006–2007 artists-in-residence: Wardell Milan II, Titus Kaphar, and Demetrius Oliver. All freshly minted Ivy League MFAs (Milan and Kaphar were trained at Yale, Oliver hails from UPenn), the three represent the Studio’s latest black-superstars-in-the-making discovery.
Kaphar, whose work bears a thematic resemblance to the work of portraiture artist Kehinde Wiley, engages the history of black images within early Western paintings. In his series “Conversations Between Paintings” the artist “remixes” classic works—repainting them in ways that flip the script on art history’s traditional representations of black-white relations (where blackness equals subservience and whiteness equals agency). Unfortunately, in spite of the delicious idiosyncrasy of Kaphar’s diptychs, many of the works become cliché, predictable even in their kitschy eccentricity. This is in part because Kaphar seems more interested in thematics than in formal innovation.
Form is also of little importance to Oliver, whose conceptual works bear the trace of a young David Hammons. In pieces such as “Midnight,” Oliver transforms a simple blue blazer into an art-object: Flittering white lights adorn the jacket’s back, giving the piece an Afro-futuristic, otherworldly effect.
But the superstar of “Daydream” is undoubtedly Milan, whose brilliant collage dioramas present a rich archive of black diaspora iconography. In “Mount Calvary: Go Tell It on the Mountain,” the artist inserts his image into a religious Babel-land that includes Nina Simone, Kelis, and a black gay porn star posed as Jesus. Somehow it works. Similarly, in “Christopher Columbus’s Discovery of the New World,” Milan presents a cacophony of desolate images: Malnourished black children stare down at covers of Ebony magazine while white astronauts hover over women dressed in traditional African attire. These bizarre, deracinated associations do not become simple postmodern patchworks, but rather clever representations of the relationships between globalization, diaspora, and destruction.
All together, “Midnight’s Daydream” succeeds in the way that so many recent Studio Museum exhibits have triumphed: a showcase of newer, talented black artists working in, around, and sometimes against the logics of art history.