Blogs and long essays may be mutually incompatible. Having gotten written the first two parts of a four-part meditation that was to end with a series of provisional conclusions regarding the state of ethnic identity in America in the early twenty-first century, I have realized that the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia will have ended even before I can offer tentative remarks on why I cannot write a meaningful review of it.
So here, a few days before the show closes, are a handful of notes on the rightness and wrongness of Walker’s curatorial premises.
Walker, who by the way is the father of Kara Walker as well as a distinguished artist himself and longtime professor at Georgia State University, has taken it upon himself to bring up to date the notion that artists are artists foremost and ethnically oriented beings second, even when their topic is their own ethnicity. Put another way, he states that ethnic groups are poorly served when bad art is fobbed off on the public as being somehow the authentic voice of this or that people. Before a work of art can express a meaningful opinion on ethnic identity or anything else, it has first to be a well-conceived and executed work of art. It may then violate expectations or express respect in a way considered invalid by some (Walker's exhibition includes Pat Drew’s painting based on an antique photo of an African-American family, part of her effort to represent the family resemblances between Southern ancestors of all races)…or as he puts it more vividly, “Isn’t that a no-no?”
Two of the best works in the show, both formally and conceptually, are Kevin Sipp’s reinventions of Ki-Kongo ritual objects blended with allusions to René Depestre’s negritude poem A Rainbow for the Christian West and Bad Brains’ hardcore in an Afro-Punk amalgam to set alongside the Afro-Futurism espoused by Sipp’s prematurely deceased onetime collaborator, Charles Nelson.
Yun Liu’s translation of a Rothkoesque abstract expressionism into an overlay on panels of Chinese characters is one method of creating a hybrid aesthetic culture. A more contemporary form is Yi-Hsin Tzeng’s video of herself being drenched in successive layers of red, yellow and blue paint followed by a coat of white concluding and wiping out “The Last Painting in Modernism.” Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue, indeed. The video is reminiscent of the version of bodily intervention undertaken by the first generation of Chinese artists to become global superstars, making its allusion to Barnett Newman as distinctly grounded in (contemporary) Chinese practice as Yun’s (or should it be Liu’s? It’s hard for some of us to tell when a name has been reversed to conform to American expectations, without the telltale hyphen linking two of the names.).
The exhibition cries out to be evaluated both in terms of the extent to which the art plays into ethnic expectations and the extent to which the aesthetic success of the work varies wildly. But it’s a non-starter; an Anglo (I like to use the Southwestern term for us descendants of southern United Kingdom émigrés) male of a certain age still cannot toss around glib opinions or even considered ones without being accused of having the cultural blindnesses and defects of personal vision that all of us humans in fact possess, regardless of our ethnicity and our preferred theoretical practice. (In theory, the right practice ought to make perfect, but it’s not so.)
So one hopes that the show has gotten a decent number of viewers during its run. It’s too bad that the lively symposium that inaugurated the exhibition couldn’t be repeated in these waning days of August.