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EXHIBITIONS

“Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York

A double, dripping line runs through the corner wall of the Studio Museum in Harlem. What seems barely noticeable from a distance becomes more definite and dramatic closer up: each stripe is made of blood, lemon, and saliva, and was composed by licking the wall after the artist Tameka Norris cut her tongue with a knife in her mouth, during a live performance on the opening night.

Like the majority of the practices of the artists involved, most of the works in Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, the first retrospective on performance among black visual artists, adopt an extremely radical approach. The exhibition is curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, and was first shown at Contemporary Art Museum Houston last year. The New York chapter is divided into two parts: the first took place at NYU Grey Art Gallery earlier this fall, while the second opened at the Studio Museum in Harlem in mid-November. On view are videos, photos and objects related to performances and public actions spanning over 50 years of practice, from the early 1960s to the present, by 36 artists of African descent, both from US and the Caribbean, from three different generations. The show includes a full program of events and performances, partly incorporated into Performa, the performance biennial whose fourth edition is taking place in New York in November.

As a fundamental element of performance, the body is the main focus of practice and the primal tool used to convey any intended message. All the artists in the show relate to their personal space and experience, inevitably engaging their black bodies, which carry a historical burden of oppression and a memory of when they were made invisible or rendered a symbol of resistance and revolt. As Harvey Young writes, quoted by Cassel Oliver in the exhibition catalogue: “The black body […], is a body that has been forced into the public spotlight and given a compulsory visibility. It has been made to be given to be seen.”

What has been described by Robert Ferris as the “aesthetic of the cool” characterizes the main approach black artists have employed through the years. Endurance is the common characteristic through which these concepts have been explored and challenged – especially in everyday scenarios – with an alternation of suffering and humor, aiming for self-determination and liberation.

This approach can be found in some of the most emblematic works in the show, like Superman 51, 1977, by Papo Colo, a video compendium of the performance where the artist ran dragging 51 wooden sticks to protest the refusal to grant Puerto Rico statehood in 1976. Sherman Fleming was active under the pseudonym RODFORCE in the late 1970s and 1980s, and the video included here, Pretending to be Rock, 1993, shows the artist on his knees, attempting to stand up to the pain as hot wax slowly dripped onto his exposed back. Other artists have taken a more subtle and ironic approach, as in Bliz-aard Balls Sale, 1984, by David Hammons, or Eating the Wall Street Journal, 2000, by Pope L., who describes himself as “The Friendliest Black Artist in America”, and the more recent YouTube videos Art Thoughtz by artist Jayson Musson, a.k.a. Hennessy Youngman, who addresses various topics related to the art system with a satiric approach, mimicking hip-hop style. Some of the most recent works engage in re-enactments or tributes to pioneering figures, as in the case of Clifford Owens with his series Anthology, 2010-2011, and Adam Pendleton’s Lorraine O’Grady: A Portrait, 2012. Referring and re-enacting previous works – in a time that Studio Museum director Thelma Golden, together with artist Glenn Ligon, described in the 1990s as “Post Blackness” – acts as a powerful and evocative presence.

Though the intent of the show, as specified by the curator, is to resist any reductive conclusions about blackness, without denying the evidence of its existence, not everyone aligned with this approach. Adrian Piper, one of the artists in the show, decided to remove her video from view at Grey Gallery, calling for a wider, multiethnic approach, in order to expand the limits and consider the impact of African American artists’ practice in direct dialogue with their peers.

Elena Tavecchia

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at Studio Museum in Harlem, New York

until 9 March 2014

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Above – Papo Colo, Superman 51 (video still), 1977

Sherman Fleming (aka RodForce), Pretending to be Rock, 1993

David Hammons, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1984

Pope L. performing Eating the Wall Street Journal (2000), The Sculpture Center, New York, 2000

Jayson Musson, Hennessy Youngman’s Art Thoughtz: Performance Art, 2011

Clifford Owens, Anthology (William Pope. L), 2011

Adam Pendleton, Lorraine O’Grady: A Portrait, 2012

Derrick Adams, I Just Crush a Lot #1, 2011

Terry Adkins, Matinee, 2007–2013

Jamal Cyrus, Texas Fried Tenor (from the series “Learning to Work the Saxophone”), 2012

Zachary Fabri, Roly Poly, 2003

Theaster Gates, See, Sit, Sup, Sing: Holding Court (performance still), Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2012

Wayne Hodge, Negerkuss, 2011

Tameka Norris, Untitled (performance still), Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2012

Senga Nengudi, RSVP, 1975-77 (performance still), Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2012

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Courtesy: the artists; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; Dawoud Bey and Jack Tilton Gallery, New York;  Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; YouTube.  Photo: Lydia Grey; Jerry Jones; Max Fields; Kathrin Heller.


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