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Julie Dash Films Gullah Country

FAVORITE DAUGHTERS

Gullah country, more commonly known as the Georgia Sea Islands, starts off the coastline of Beaufort County, South Carolina, and stretches south into Georgia. The islands are connected to the mainland by bridges of recent vintage; locals refer to the whole region as the Low Country. To get there from here you must be driven 50 miles from the Savannah airport, perhaps by a retired gentleman from Buffalo who affably shares news of his upcom­ing trip to Minneapolis for cancer treatment. So much for smalltalk. Kick back, enjoy the ride and the countryside: winding blacktop flanked by high-rise forests, ranch houses, trailer homes, and the occasional dog or possum come out from under some semi’s wheels to lump up the road, organic sculpture from the Francis Bacon school. Peculiar to the region’s foliage are nifty, atmo­spheric ornaments: drooping spools of Spanish moss and spiky palmettos. Half­way to our destination, the Royal Frog­more Inn, my compañera asks me what I notice first when I visit a new place and I say the houses. Beulah Joe says she looks at the dirt and wonders what the differ­ence between us means. I tell her it means I’m a house Negro and she’s a field Negro and she laughs, well, we already knew that.

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The Royal Frogmore is a motel on the island of St. Helena. The black people who populate St. Helena and most of the other islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts are known as Gullah or Geechees. People who don’t know any better think Gullah people talk funny. Those in the know realize that Gullah is a bona fide dialect and are confident in the scholarly thesis that ‘Gullah’ is a contrac­tion of ‘Angola.’

But me and Beulah Joe aren’t here to gaze upon the Gullah. We’re here to see black independent filmmaker Julie Dash go into intensive labor on her feature-in­-utero, Daughters of the Dust, a turn-of­-the-century tale about a fictional Gullah family. Dash has three other films to her credit: Four Women, a choreopoem based on the Nina Simone song of the same name; Diary of an African Nun, from the Alice Walker short story; and Illusions, a 34-minute original starring Lonette McKee as a black woman exec passing for white at a Hollywood studio during the wartime ’40s. The latter has received standing ovations from Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and the dean of black inde­pendent film crits, Clyde Taylor.

Daughters is Dash’s most ambitious project to date on several counts, not least for being shot on 35mm color stock, which costs $365 per two-minute reel. Dash’s financing for the two-week shoot comes from several grants — $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, $5000 from the Appleshop Southeast Re­gional Fellowship, $9000 from the Geor­gia Endowment for the Humanities, $16,000 from the Fulton County Arts Council. By the end of her Beaufort stay, Dash says, she’ll be worrying over how she and husband/cinematographer A. J. Fielder are going to pay their rent and phone bills. Dash’s plan after initial shooting is to edit a trailer on video then seek out investors and more grants. As independent film financing schemes go, it’s as sound as any.

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Dash’s personal demeanor suggests both dreamy-eyed fabulist and fo­cused professional. Her attitude on the set is casual but only be­cause her preproduction work is meticulous, worked out in fine detail on the Toshiba PC she’s installed in her Royal Frogmore office. Day charts detail­ing the entire two-week shoot drape the walls with information on costume changes, locations, camera angles, and special effects. She considers herself more a technical director than an actor’s director, and very little dialogue goes on between her and the actors on the set. Dialogue with the crew is also at a minimum. Once Dash sets up her shots and sound and camera get rolling, the action plays until the takes sync with her vision. Her mood on the shoot is chill maximus.

Dash’s eyes, spunky and alert eyes, per­petually gleam. They are set in a doeish face that maternal weight-gain has left somewhat stout. On location the director wears pearl-drop earrings and coral lip­stick, jeans, a fisherman’s cap decorated by a Palestinian Film Institute pin, and a Venezia sweatshirt. The island’s kamika­ze gnats and mosquitoes dive over her Reebok hightops, leaving her legs and ankles a spotted red.

The production’s budget crunch will have Dash pull triple-duty as wardrobe mistress, makeup artist, and director. In this she’s not alone: Her coproducer Ber­nard Nicolas functions as troubleshooter, fogmachine operator, and soundman. Art director Kerry Marshall will take time away from building a graveyard, Eli’s blacksmith shop, and an indigo process­ing plant to play a bit part as a Muslim bowing toward Mecca from the beach. First assistant cameraman Will Hudson will step from behind the camera to por­tray a slave in a flashback scene.

Set in 1902, Daughters focuses on a Gullah family whose young adults are preparing for a mass exodus north and a junking of their Gullah heritage in their diaspora to industrialized America. An acknowledged point of departure for Dash’s script is the work of Toni Morri­son, particularly evident in Dash’s han­dling of Gullah women’s communal infrastructure. The leading characters are, with one exception, female. There is the wizened, snuff-chomping matriarch Great Mother Palmer, an African born in captivity who fears the young people’s connection to the ancestors will be severed by urbanization and Christian con­version. Opposing her is Hagar — an edu­cated convert, brashly sarcastic toward Great Mother Palmer’s “hoodoo” reli­gion. Yella Mary has recently returned from a life of surrogate mothering and prostitution in Cuba. Eula is young, preg­nant, and victim of a rape by a white man. Her husband Eli, the community blacksmith, suspects the baby ain’t his. Dash’s personal favorite among her dra­matis personae is The Unborn Child, a spritely five-year-old vision of Eula and Eli’s progeny who romps unseen on the margins of key scenes.

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There are several dream sequences in the scenario. Ancestral spirits visit the living to chase away their inner de­mons — an Africanist switch on conven­tional film use of both phantasms and psychoanalysis. While the offscreen rape would play as melodramatic fodder in a David Wolper postbellum potboiler, Dash uses it symbolically to probe black wom­en’s wombs — investigating their powers of regeneration and the psychic scars left by forced miscegenation. Like Morrison’s novels, the script for Daughters is a testi­mony to the secret celebrations and packed-away sorrows of African-Ameri­can women.

Dash was raised in the Queensridge projects but her daddy was a Gee­chee. Dash’s mother used to tell her, if you think your father talks funny you should hear some of his backwoods cousins. Dash remembers her daddy as a fancy dan who loved ballroom dancing. One day he brought a bucket of crabs home and set them loose on the living room floor (the Gullah being re­nowned for their shrimp and crab fish­ing). Dash smiles at the memory of climbing over the furniture, screaming with delight.

Dash’s uncle Julien was a jazz saxo­phonist who wrote the swing hit “Tuxedo Junction” for Erskine Hawkins’s band and made Super-8 and 16mm films of his life on the road. Her uncle Roger, who resides in Los Angeles, has been an in­dustrial film producer for 15 years. Nei­ther of these relations, Dash says, played any role in her decision to become a film­maker 17 years ago. That she attributes to the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Dash went to meet a girlfriend and found herself seduced by the 16mm hardware floating around a cinematography class her homegirl was taking. The equipment had been donated after the riots, part of the era’s gliberal program to quell the rage of Harlem youth. A few years later the gear would be reclaimed by its do­-good donors. Dash recalls the teaching method as hands-on and the esthetic as verité.

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Dash remembers her childhood as one spent reading and daydreaming. Day­dreaming has always gotten her into trouble. In third grade she wrote a story about the sun and the moon which her teacher brandished before the class as an example of something called plagiarism. Dash’s mother straightened that teacher out, like she straightened out a meddle­some churchgoer who complained during a Bear Mountain voyage about Dash staring into the water on a cruise. Dash was daydreaming, a frequent pastime to spare herself from condescending adult conversation. The busybody advised psychiatric help for Dash. Dash’s mother told the woman who really needed help.

Mom could relate: she was a daydream­er too. She often told her daughters how as a child she believed she was a princess who’d been shanghaied to North Caroli­na. Dash recently had her astrologer do a reading for Mom. He divined she’d been a princess in a past life. Dash’s mother also used to drape shower curtains depicting a beach or Parisian cafe scene over a door and photograph herself and her daugh­ters playacting in bathing suits. Record­ing this material I glimmer the pleasures it might bring — for some Lacanian film theorist. Dash says she continues to day­dream and often returns to several that play in her mind like ongoing miniseries, some of which she hopes will one day become films.

The movies Dash remembers best from her youth are West Side Story and Gold­finger, but less as theatrical events than Hollywood product appropriated for neighborhood recreation. There were days when the basketball court would fill up with kids reenacting the Jets-Sharks opera. Dialogue from the Bond film became stock for oblique retorts to teachers and school administrators. “I want scenes like those in my films — the kind you never see in Hollywood movies about black urban youth.”

California dreaming brought Dash to Los Angeles upon her graduation from CCNY’s film program in 1974. One rea­son Dash headed West was to escape the tyranny of political documentary film­making then favored on the East Coast. The concept for her first film, Four Women, was rejected by the brothers at the Studio Museum for being irrelevant to the struggle. The project undertaken in its place would show righteous bloods providing victuals to the starving masses.

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In L.A., Dash became one of the youn­gest fellows in American Film Insti­tute history, a fact that provoked more trepidation than pride. “I was surrounded by all of these people who’d done features, had worked in the industry. I felt out of my depth.” In this period she was also introduced to black independents Larry Clarke and Charles Burnett, who’d been classmates at UCLA with Haile Gerima of Bush Mama fame. Clarke was working on his visionary jazz drama Passing Through; Dash helped with the sound. Burnett had by that time produced his short The Horse and the epochal Killer of Sheep — first-prize win­ner at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival­ — which filmmaker Reggie Hudlin rightly appraises as “black independent cinema’s Invisible Man.”

Dash’s first major project at UCLA was an adaptation of Alice Walker’s story “Diary of an African Nun,” a Bressonian exercise in angst and austerity with spooky black-and-white visuals. The au­thor’s response to the film still smarts for Dash. “I struck a print for her out of courtesy and she sent me a 10-page cri­tique. I wanted to tell her, lady don’t you know I’m only a student?”

Dash wound up making her AFI gradu­ate project, Illusions, at UCLA because the powers that be at Greystoke Mansion disapproved of a scene depicting film-recording technology not possible in the ’40s, when the film takes place. Once again Dash was daydreaming up against a brick wall. “They tell you film is a “fanta­sy medium where you can do anything you want and then say you can’t make a film because some technology wasn’t in­vented yet. They make films about black people that have nothing to do with reali­ty all the time.”

Illusions stirs up a racial identity quag­mire by way of Lanette Mckee’s wanna­bee character, Mignon. The film also frames interlocking takes on racism, sex­ism, patriarchal warmongering, and the exploitation of black musical artists by the white entertainment industry. Illu­sions is unique in black independent cine­ma for its period setting, specially con­structed sets, film-within-film action, white chorus line and mostly white cast. First reactions to the film were disheartening for Dash. At a black film festival in London the pan-ethnic screening board thought it had been sent to them by mis­take. Until she met the festival’s director a year later, Dash couldn’t figure why the film was the only one in the festival not reviewed.

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The scenes shot for this round of pro­duction involve four of the principal characters in Daughters of the Dust­ — Eula, Yella Mary, Eli, and The Unborn Child. Alva Rogers, who has the Eula role, is a friend of mine from New York. She’s got a supporting role in Spike Lee’s School Daze and works with the black women’s performance cartel, Rodeo Cal­donia. Rogers is also a “new music” vo­calist who’s done work with Butch Morris and Elliot Sharp. She performs her own music at downtown spaces — sung incantations on race and gender derived from texts by black women writers. Alva is black like Miles Davis, as beautiful and photogenic as the maestro was at 26. Her skin is black in the way that made Bud Powell say to Miles, I wish I was as black as you.

Barbara-O was the lead in black director Haile Gerima’s gritty, epochal Bush Mama, but has also done episodic television — Lou Grant, Laverne and Shirley, and even Wonder Woman, where she played “high-queen of the interplanetary council.” She left acting in 1980 to study filmmaking; Daughters is one of only two roles she’s taken in seven years. Though her fallen-woman character is called Yella Mary, she’s more orange than ochre, with Cherokee high cheekbones, deep-set suc­cubus eyes, and a posture more erect than a Trump tower. She gets into character by leaving her door open at night draped with yellow mosquito netting, awaiting, says she, her lovers.

For this round of shooting Alva and Barbara-O will play their dialogue scenes at a location called Ibo Landing in the script. Slaveships anchored there, and legend has it that a chained group of Ibos once walked down the planks, surveyed the situation, and turned around to walk across the water. There are many St. Helena sites that will serve as “Ibo Landings” during the filming. This scene will take place on the Black People’s Beach, passed which common can property never be of sold St. but Helena’s only blacks, down generation to generation.

This Ibo Landing is a meadow whose centerpiece is a monstrous tree that looks like a thrashing giant buried upside down to the chest. Behind it is a sunken bayou with junked kitchen appliances the crew will have to move — stove, sink, and cabi­nets — followed by yellow marshes and then the shell-strewn beach. As water­front properties go, the Black People’s Beach isn’t much to look at, more Tarzanland than sunbather’s paradise for lack of landclearing funds.

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In character, Barbara-O mounts the tree to lay back on a sturdy limb in full lady-of-leisure regalia: a white waist­length coat, white high-heeled boots with hooksnaps, a gold nose-ring, green con­tacts, and a floor-length lace-shouldered number dripping with petticoats. Her shoulder bag is big and embroidered, her hat is a bonnet on its way to becoming a fedora with veil. For hours on end Barba­ra-O manages to maintain a stallion’s carriage in a chaise-longue recline. I surmise yoga has given this bush mama a truss-rod spine. At one point she leans forward from the waist like a lever topped by a wig and jaw definition Iman would die for. The surprise of the shoot is the debut of Alva’s and Barbara-O’s vari­ations on Gullah dialect. Alva’s is mutant mimicry: a soft singsong, via the moun­tains of Norway and the hills of Jamaica. Imagine Liv Ullman coming out of the mouth like a Rasta jah-jah girl. There’s a mocking stridency to Barbara-O’s accent that makes it less about music than a bitchin’ screen femme fatale attitude. The haughty lilt of the Caribbean is there, sure, but hers is really more like some Lauren Bacall-goes-to-the-Low­-Country stuff. Fierce. At this point I real­ize Daughters of the Dust has the poten­tial to be something we’ve never really seen on the screen before: a black “wom­en’s picture” — not quite in the grand George Cukor tradition, but close enough to be kin. There’s certainly enough atti­tude on the prowl up in here to give the comparison anchorage.

True to the pattern of Dash’s other projects, Daughters has already gone up against two funding agen­cies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National En­dowment for the Humanities. At CPB the project ran afoul of a black woman exec who told Dash her script was too mystical and suggested she write some­thing geared toward white midwestern­ers. At NEH the project was rejected, says a letter from the powers that be, for not being written in the Gullah brogue on the one hand, and for being “an intellec­tual exercise” beyond primetime compre­hension on the other. Dash believes what’s really operating here is a fear of black people making political statements grounded in an autochthonous reading of black culture. “The image of the black revolutionary was neutralized through caricature during the blaxploitation era. He was made to seem weak and a phony. Now there exists a fear of black people using our culture to make statements in code. It’s the modern variation on the fear that led slaveholders to take our drums away.” Though the NEH letter applauds Dash’s research and the en­dorsements of her script by respected Gullah scholars, it tries to claim that the film’s symbolic elements are purely flights of her fancy. What Dash has come up against here is the arrogance of someone else’s ignorance — an arrogance forti­fied by what appears to be the common belief that blacks’ self-knowledge is like no knowledge at all.

Knowing that racism is behind the in­stitutions’ failure to support her does nothing to insure that Dash will have dollar one to complete Daughters this spring. But Dash, a veteran of black inde­pendent film’s long march, doesn’t know how to be despondent. “I just read Spike’s book on the making of She’s Gotta Have It, and after all he went through to finish his film, I know we’re going to finish this one.” ❖

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UPLIFT THE RACE
Black Independents’ Coming Attractions 

Yes, Virginia, there is a black in­dependent cinema beyond the genius of Spike Lee and the pound-wise, penny-ante-foolishness and ingenuity of Robert Townsend. You want more dap on it, you are required to read Thomas Cripps’s informative if problematic Slow Fade to Black, wait for Clyde Taylor’s poststructuralist tome on the subject, and by all means to join the Black Filmmaker Foundation. The BFF — 80 Eighth Avenue, suite 1704, NYC, 10011, 924-1198 — has a rental archive of work by nearly 100 black independents, and screens films every month by up-and-coming directors. Had you, for example, been a member two years ago you could have seen She’s Gotta Have It damn near right out the lab.

Five black independent filmmakers were working on Daughters of the Dust. A. J. Fielder has produced a short experimental work, Super 8 transferred to video, and has plans to begin shooting this summer a feature of Joycean intertextuality about his Howard years called Jahamas on Su­per 8, to be transferred to video. First assistant Will Hudson has completed two short video features, Rootman and Winter, that have a gutbucket phan­tasmagoric look. Drama adviser Leroy McDonald, a colleague of Dash’s at AFI, has done a short feature based on the infamous Tuskegee experiments and has another in the works about Olympic gold medalist Tommy Smith, who, with John Carlos, gave the black power salute at the ’68 games and wrecked his sports career as a result. Barbara-O is editing a documentary about black homeless men, and pro­ducer Bernard Nicolas has completed a documentary on his Haitian emigré family. Other names to watch out for are Reggie Hudlin, whose The Kold Waves is on the boards for production by New World this summer; Ellen Sumter, another Howard grad, with two 16mm short features to her credit; Brooklyn’s own Ayoka Chenzira; and Neema Barnette, whose work you may have peeped on two early Frank’s Place episodes. All coming to a theater near you in your lifetime we desper­ately hope. ■

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Kehinde Wiley’s Pomp and Black Circumstance

I wish I liked Kehinde Wiley’s paintings more than I do.

For about half a decade, Wiley has been painting young men posed in front of elaborate, patterned backgrounds. Initially, his subjects were African-Americans dressed in the uniforms of hip-hop—baggy jeans, hoodie sweatshirts, basketball jerseys, puffy down jackets—but arranged in compositions cribbed from haute 18th- and 19th-century European paintings.

He’s also painted rappers like Big Daddy Kane, Biggie Smalls, Ice T, and LL Cool J posing imperially against richly patterned backgrounds. A more whimsical series, shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 2005, found hip-hoppers floating in the clouds like the cherubim in Renaissance ceiling frescoes.

In these paintings, the sitters are all gesture and attitude, pomp and bombast. Wiley’s artistic stance is like that, too. On his website, he puts himself in a “long line of portraitists including Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian, Ingres, among others.” But Wiley’s project is more than your ordinary bid for art-world domination: He’s redirecting the currents of power. Instead of painting rich white people—the customary subjects of Western portraiture—he’s painting young black men.

Recently, the 31-year-old artist, raised in Los Angeles, has taken his project global. In his series “The World Stage,” he relocates to different countries and recruits young men off the streets to pose for him. The paintings at his current Studio Museum show follow the same format as the earlier canvases, except that instead of copying European paintings, the sitters mimic the poses of African public sculpture.

Young men dressed in Western clothes—jeans, shorts, soccer jerseys, button-down shirts—assume the positions of a Dogon Couple or a sculpture in the Place Soweto (National Assembly). You have to flip through the catalog to see photographs of the original sources. Here you discover that unlike the European paintings, which came from the same school of naturalistic, figurative art, the African sources range from tribal/pre-colonial to quasi-modern. Wiley has also played fast and loose with the compositions, clipping figures at the knees or turning a (Western) peace-sign gesture into a clenched-fist salute.

But despite the positive, empowering vibes coming from these paintings, my sense of discomfort remains. Or maybe I should clarify: my sense of discomfort with the art world’s embrace of Wiley as “a history painter, one of the best we have” (to quote one review), or the descriptions of his work as “conceptually based critical works that are about representation rather than enactments of the process itself” (as one Foucault-heavy essay in the SMH catalog has it).

From the outside, the problem might seem merely that Wiley’s genre is stale. He’s coming late to the game of figurative art; what he’s doing isn’t particularly new or interesting, except that he’s depicting African-Americans and Africans instead of white Europeans.

Wiley, though, isn’t even in the first generation of black men to paint the figure. Kerry James Marshall’s patchwork compositions are subversive confections of Eisenhower-era vignettes filled with tar-baby black figures and jarring texts. And then there’s Barkley Hendricks—in fact, Wiley’s paintings are a kind of juiced-up redux of Hendricks, with similar centralized figures and an emphasis on pattern. A recent painting by Hendricks of Nigerian Afrobeat star Fela Anikulapo Kuti showing him as a haloed saint has a yellow-wallpaper background that competes with the figure in the foreground, just as in Wiley’s compositions.

And despite the surface swagger, Wiley is a much tamer painter than either of these two artists. Marshall’s paintings carry titles like Black Power and By Any Means Necessary; Hendricks’s subjects range from women with foot-tall Afros and T-shirts that read “Slave” and “Bitch” to Fela, a musician whose 1977 hit album Zombie was an attack on the Nigerian military. (Hendricks’s Fela painting shows the musician grabbing his crotch—something that, despite the infamous lewdness of hip-hop, Wiley avoids.)

Wiley’s version of neo–Black Power is complicated, since it centers on the corporatized fields of sports and entertainment, and captures Africans dressed in the cheap outfits (born out of sweat shops and globalized commerce) that mean a young man in Lagos wouldn’t look out of place on 125th Street. Only one painting, Three Wise Men Greeting Entry Into Lagos, finds Wiley’s subjects dressed in African attire—well, African tunics worn over jeans.

Wiley’s work is also nearly devoid of women. He did a painting of the rappers Salt-N-Pepa and Spinderella in 2005, but the African canvases are like Elizabethan stage plays, with young men taking the place of women in paintings like Place Soweto and the even more clearly feminized Benin Mother and Child. Wiley’s work may be “about representation” and power, but the women who exist in the public spaces of African cities are dismissed from “The World Stage.”

There’s a reason for this. Wiley himself states that the works are about a kind of coded homoeroticism. (In some of his paintings, vegetal patterns in the background wind around the figures in the foreground, replicating sperm.) But in a catalog interview, when curator Christine Kim tells Wiley that one of his American models “left the building” during a panel discussion in Columbus when gay sexuality was brought up, Wiley backtracks, stressing that, in the studio, he attempts to create a “neutral environment.” You can’t have it both ways, however, and this neutrality spills over into the paintings, which feel most of the time like a hedging of bets between multicultural political correctness and messier gay/black politics.

In many ways, Wiley is a symptom of the age—or maybe a victim of the era and his own success. He shows with Jeffrey Deitch, the impresario whose mission seems to be to fuse art with entertainment. Like much of Deitch’s youth-culture-heavy stable, Wiley’s flashy eye-candy painting is framed as edgy and subversive, but it sidesteps the heavyweight, head-on politics of artists like Glen Ligon. By comparison, Wiley is glossy, market-ready, and safe—unless the feel-good, one-world/one-love vibe is a ruse, a way of making a large population fall in love with paintings that they might, under clearer circumstances, reject.

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Kerry James Marshall, Black on Black

Kerry James Marshall’s paintings of black people simply being human stand out in an art-industrial complex where subjects, artists, purveyors, and consumers are pretty much white folk. In his series of five large grisaille paintings, he imagines a young man lifting his girl through the air in graceful arcs. The lovers are seen from different angles, and viewing the panels in quick succession conveys a swirling, physical joy. This romantic vision is complicated by such kitsch as floating hearts, Black Power fists, and rococo cascades of flowers entwining the word “LOVE.” Marshall masterfully leavens old-school pictorial space with poster-shop sentiment, demanding classical vigor from his compositions while also embracing Everyman tastes. In a beach scene, he transcends purposeful cliché with Albers-esque color sophistication—a cuddling couple basks in an orange sunset, the dusky subtleties of their bodies echoed in the rich contrast of yellow sun flares engulfing a shadowy seagull. A series depicting black artists hefting palettes the size of grand-piano lids plays with an art-historical trope—self-portrait with the tools of the trade. A reminder that the canon has largely turned a blind eye to the black creator, each artist is posed before the ghostly grids you see on studio walls, where drawings and paintings of different sizes have been worked on and then removed. There’s defiance inherent in this poignant absence: Here I am, the subjects seem to say— I won’t disappear even if my work is unseen.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: June 19. Continues through July 3, 2008

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James Kerry Marshall, Black on Black

Kerry James Marshall’s paintings of black people simply being human stand out in an art-industrial complex where subjects, artists, purveyors, and consumers are pretty much white folk. In his series of five large grisaille paintings, he imagines a young man lifting his girl through the air in graceful arcs. The lovers are seen from different angles, and viewing the panels in quick succession conveys a swirling, physical joy. This romantic vision is complicated by such kitsch as floating hearts, Black Power fists, and rococo cascades of flowers entwining the word “LOVE.” Marshall masterfully leavens old-school pictorial space with poster-shop sentiment, demanding classical vigor from his compositions while also embracing Everyman tastes. In a beach scene, he transcends purposeful cliché with Albers-esque color sophistication—a cuddling couple basks in an orange sunset, the dusky subtleties of their bodies echoed in the rich contrast of yellow sun flares engulfing a shadowy seagull. A series depicting black artists hefting palettes the size of grand-piano lids plays with an art-historical trope—self-portrait with the tools of the trade. A reminder that the canon has largely turned a blind eye to the black creator, each artist is posed before the ghostly grids you see on studio walls, where drawings and paintings of different sizes have been worked on and then removed. There’s defiance inherent in this poignant absence: Here I am, the subjects seem to say— I won’t disappear even if my work is unseen.


Erica Svec

These intense paintings slalom between hallucinogenic visions and Jasper Johns–ian formality. Break Thru (2008) features a flat, pale-peach human silhouette, its huge, fleshy fist tattooed with a target; trompe l’oeil Polaroids have been painted to the left of this image, creating a grid of vaguely organic shapes. The swaying tassels and enigmatic diamond shapes in Untitled are painted with vivid contrasts, everything geared to a circular motif centering on a rainbow-colored sprocket. With its obscuring vaporous clouds and peppy patterns, Svec-world offers nightmarish flights of fancy anchored by corporeal frisson. Larissa Goldston, 530 W 25th, 212-206-7887. Through June 21.


Robert Polidori: ‘Versailles Etats Transitoires’

Using an 8 x 10 view camera, Polidori captures astonishing details of both the interior and the artistic contents of the ancien régime’s opulent palace at Versailles. An oval portrait of Marie Antoinette, alabaster cheeks rouged like a kewpie doll’s, hangs atop elaborate white molding; grimy handprints mar a concealed door cut into the ornamental trim. Another shot crops a canvas depicting Louis XIV, refashioning his sumptuously flowing robe into rich abstraction; Polidori’s composition contrasts the painting’s saturated colors against tacky burgundy wallpaper and faux marble edging. The prints are all five to six feet high, and one focuses on a modern surveillance camera bluntly mounted to frou-frou cherub decorations. Other shots capture chipped plaster, peeling paint, and a janitor’s floor buffer, documenting royal excess transmogrified into scruffy national theme park. Edwynn Houk, 745 Fifth Ave, 212-750-7070. Through June 14.


Jake & Dinos Chapman

Like Fred and Ginger, sex and death are perennial partners. Here, the Chapman brothers dismember the body and force the parts—brains and genitalia, mostly—into a danse macabre with maggots, rubber chickens, and surgical gloves inflated like distended udders. Arranged on tabletops along with hammers, saws, and drive chains poised to slash, pulverize, and flay the flesh, these gelatinous concoctions are actually fabricated from bronze. Painted in candy colors, the brothers’ “Little Death Machines” feel like the workbenches of psycho-killer clowns. L&M Arts, 45 E 78th, 212-861-0020. Through June 14.


‘Amerika: Back to the Future’

Keynoted to Rammstein’s rollicking music video “Amerika,” in which the Teutonic industrialists roll their R’s while bouncing about in Apollo spacesuits, this group show imagines various and sundry apocalypses by way of South Park. Jennifer and Kevin McCoy present two spinning dioramas of strip malls, the first depopulated and overrun by globally warmed vegetation, another scorched and swarming with zombies; Old Navy and Home Depot signs have been cannibalized into a billboard pleading “HELP US.” One Anthony Goicolea photo features burned-out buildings fronted by battered 55-gallon drums, while another envisions grain elevators swamped by ice floes. In the rear gallery, sculptor David Herbert offers Star Trek’s Enterprise propped up by a wooden framework—the spaceship is covered with Paleolithic markings and riddled with sheltering caves. It’s the same old story: Imperial plans crash and burn, becoming the mythos of the next empire. Postmasters, 459 W 19th, 212-727-3323. Through July 12.

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Spring Art Preview: Kerry James Marshall’s Black Whole

“You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility,” Kerry James Marshall told a curator in 2005. “You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers’ headquarters and see the kinds of things I saw in my development years and not speak about it.”

When Marshall spoke at MOMA last year, he began with the Supreme Court’s pro-slavery Dred Scott decision and its relation to the current administration’s embrace of the “Full Spectrum Dominance” doctrine (which asserts a U.S. right to do anything necessary to maintain unilateral military supremacy of the world). Not your standard artist’s slide talk, but it was vintage Marshall, lifting historical moments up to the light to expose how the powerful build Potemkin villages of legality to enforce their dominance, whether over individuals, races, or countries. Discussing his 1998 “Mementos” installation of sculpture, painting, and printmaking at the University of Chicago, which portrayed murdered ’60s activists as disparate as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, he pointed out that marching for civil rights “got you killed as quick as being a black nationalist would get you killed.”

Marshall’s historical, political, and racial subjects are as far-ranging as his media (which also include film and comic books). In a recent e-mail interview with the Voice from his Chicago studio, he explains: “There is such scant representation of the Black body in the historical record, that I believe I have a duty to advance its presence using every means at my disposal.” That body confronts you in 1986’s Invisible Man, a warm-toned black figure (with white eyes and teeth) on a cooler black ground, a minimalist riff on Ralph Ellison’s book. Compare this to Malevich’s 1918 oil painting Suprematist Composition: White on White, that famous white square on a white ground that occupies pride of place at MOMA. Marshall notes that abstraction is not an avenue truly available to him, because “non-representational work does not address this important problem” of the black figure’s absence from most of art history. He continues: “An unrequited love of art history haunts me, and I believe, most Black artists, who know deep down they will never achieve the status, in history, of a Jackson Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, or Jeff Koons. . . . It matters that the history you are compelled to acknowledge reinforces notions of your inferiority with the absence of any meaningful achievement contributed by people who are like you.”

And yet Marshall does not let polemics obscure his art. “I don’t sacrifice the beauty quotient in order to make a point,” he emphasizes. In his mid-’90s “Garden Project” series, huge paintings depicting Chicago housing projects such as Rockwell Gardens and Wentworth Gardens, Marshall dealt with the irony of these pastorally named warehouses for the poor by amping up the color and jamming the canvases with text, graphics, and inspired paint handling—flowers drip down a chipped brick wall—to convey vibrant, if circumscribed, lives.

Marshall’s powerful compositions represent a tough hide stretched over deep emotional and intellectual matrices. He once wrote and drew a complete comic book, Rythm Mastr, which features a black hero (a rarity in mainstream comics) who combats lawlessness with drum beats that unleash secret powers from within African sculptures. Marshall taped the printed broadsheets to the glass panes of museum vitrines, using the light shining through his lively, double-sided layouts to create a mural veering between literally layered narratives and abstract collage.

His upcoming “Vignette” paintings depict couples in bucolic poses cribbed from the pleasure grounds of Fragonard and other French purveyors of decadent leisure. But Marshall has leached the color from his scenes; rather than riding swings in leafy glades, his lovers make do with flirting across chain-link fences. In Vignette #3, wan pink hearts flutter in the air, forming a compositional link to grisaille flowers, while a young girl’s hoop earring is echoed in a series of arcs and loops that cascade bewitchingly throughout the composition—something lovely in a denatured idyll. Jack Shainman, May 22–June 21, 513 W 20th, 212-645-1701.

Spring Art Picks

‘Dan Flavin: The 1964 Green
Gallery Exhibition’
March 6–May 3

Minimalism is getting long in the tooth. This uptown space is setting the Wayback Machine to late 1964 to recreate an installation of Flavin’s fluorescent sculptures that took place at the legendary Green Gallery, where director Richard Bellamy showcased seminal pop and minimalist artists. The original show was a turning point for Flavin, who had previously mounted his light pieces on painted wood; for the Green show, he used only the fixtures themselves, transforming commercial products more familiar from seedy showrooms or hospital corridors into transcendent art. Zwirner and Wirth, 32 E 69th, 212-517-8677

Rob Conger
March 13–April 12

You wouldn’t expect a technique handed down from Grandma to be cutting-edge, but Conger’s large latch-hook-rug portraits of 20th-century inventors transforms knots of yarn into pixels. In the image of Dr. Robert Adler, inventor of the remote control, the scruffy texture imparts a homey static to the scientist’s cadaverous mug. Other works spotlight current media mavens—Tim Russert’s florid face is rimed with purple highlights—and there’s also a pop-up book, Blow Your Wad, a primer on financial dysfunction. Mixed Greens, 531 W 26th, 212-331-8888

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Devorah Sperber: ‘Mirror Universe’
March 20–April 26

Although the press release discusses “how consciousness and the act of seeing create the illusion of a stable, predictable, singular universe,” what you really need to know is that this exhibition is based on the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror”—the one featuring a “savage parallel universe,” replete with evil Dr. Spock and scheming Captain Kirk. Sperber uses threaded glass beads of varying opacities to simulate that “Beam me up, Scotty” moment, and shaped mirrors to transform distorted figures into the familiar icons. For TNG fans (you know who you are), the holodeck has been re-created from 9,600 spools of thread. Caren Golden, 539 W 23rd, 212-727-8304

McDermott & McGough
March 21–April 26

Is that Tippi Hedren wedged into a wood-paneled corner, eyes upturned in terror? (Note the staccato rhythm of her red nails.) Judging by the POV placement of the hand in another canvas, Late Night #3: Lizabeth Scott, 1967 (2007), it’s you who’s holding the lit match for the femme fatale inside that console TV with the shiny knobs. These slick new oil paintings from a duo famous for ransacking the past—and for their Victorian toggery—channel both the studio system’s contract sirens and those bygone days when broadcasters first began downsizing the big screen for the late-late show. Cheim & Read, 547 W 25th, 212-242-7727

Lots of Things Like This
April 2–May 10

Curated by McSweeney’s mastermind Dave Eggers, this show gathers 50 works by artists who make crude images with funny texts appended. No, it’s not a rejection collection of cartoons from The New Yorker, but stuff hanging on the wall. One example from Tucker Nichols: a childish painting of a pistol accompanied by the block letters “HEY LADIES.” And another: Kurt Vonnegut’s silkscreen of a tombstone that reads “Life is no way to treat an animal.” apexart, 291 Church St., 212-431-5270

‘Frederick Kiesler:
Co-Realities’

April 18–July 24

Philip Johnson called Kiesler “the best-known non-building architect of our time,” and this collection of vibrant drawings and schemata for work ranging from avant-garde stage designs to an egg-shaped “Endless House” is a chance to see one of the 20th century’s most fertile design heads in action. Kiesler (1890–1965) was born in Austria but did much of his work in America, including the biomorphic open-air plan for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery and a “Vision Machine” for Columbia University, which attempted to demonstrate the process of perception. The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster, 212-219-2166

‘New York Cool’
April 22–July 19

One of the Grey Art Gallery’s typically erudite exhibitions, this show focuses on the various movements swirling through New York in the 1950s and ’60s. Here are Frank O’Hara’s beautifully scrawled poems, illuminated by Norman Bluhm’s splashy gouache strokes; Ilya Bolotowsky’s and Robert Goodnough’s Mondrian-inflected geometric abstractions; Seymour Lipton’s lively, biomorphic crayon drawings; Nicholas Krushenick’s chromatically intense “Iron Butterfly” prints; and a large, gestural canvas by Elaine de Kooning. Add a Milton Avery seascape and a big Louise Nevelson wall relief, and this group reminds us that there was more than ab-ex and pop happening in Gotham back in the day. Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, 212-998-6780

‘Double Album’
April 23–July 6

The press release for this show, featuring Mexican Daniel Guzmán and Canadian Steven Shearer, promises an investigation of “the pitfalls and appeal of prolonged male adolescence.” (Appeal?) Both artists were born in the ’60s, and their work shares a fascination with the music of their youth. Shearer’s octagonal, wood-paneled Activity Cell With Warlock Bass Guitar is filled with plush red cushions and looks groupie-ready; Guzmán’s red skull on a paint-spattered can forms a striking totem. The duo’s wide-ranging visual dialogue will take over the museum’s entire second floor. New Museum, 235 Bowery, 212-219-1222

‘Jeff Koons on the Roof’
April 29–October 26

Here is kitsch writ large for the Met’s inviting roof garden, courtesy of Mr. Sincerity (despite the porn shoots with his ex-wife, you get the impression that Koons truly loves the aesthetics of childhood). One piece to be wary of: Balloon Dog (Yellow). This huge stainless-steel canine may make you laugh or cry or bark like a dog. Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave., 212-535-7710

Kadar Brock
May 1-31

Brock’s kick-ass abstractions combine slathered planes of acrylic flashe with neon-bright spray-paint grids that race over the edges, implying a larger space beyond—but still part of—the canvas. This is high-energy stuff, exuberantly conveyed, and while he cadges everyone from Howard Hodgkin to Mel Bochner, this young painter distills the visual tumult of his own age into something other than a goddamned video game. Buia, 541 W 23rd, 212-366-9915

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Hilary Harkness
May 1–June 28

This is one for the boys, or at least those who think like them. Harkness’s models on stilettos are rough trade indeed, leggy doms and subs cavorting in harm’s way in meticulously detailed oil paintings of crowded submarines, battleships, and other homo-erotic interiors. The latest piece features a mining camp where the lusty hijinks continue in sluices, outhouses, and covered wagons bathed in tawny light. Mary Boone, 745 Fifth Ave., 212-752-2929

‘Eminent Domain’
May 2–August 29

A group of contemporary photographers shoot New York at the margins: In Thomas Holton’s photo of the Lam family’s ramshackle Ludlow Street apartment, detergent bottles, plastic clothes hangers, and a bouquet of roses in a stained bathtub vie for attention; a passenger plane seems ready to land on the shingled roof of a Queens house in Bettina Johae’s Meadowmere; and the striped façade and gray warming trays heaped with potatoes and punctuated by naked lightbulbs create a formal smorgasbord in Zoe Leonard’s Red and White Restaurant. New York Public Library, Fifth Ave. at 42nd, 212-930-0830

Greg Drasler
May 15–June 27

Drasler often depicts the insides of things—rooms, steamer trunks, cars—giving his paintings a vaguely voyeuristic feel. Green Screen (2007) features a bulbous sedan with the passenger door removed and the rear wide open, exposing the broad seats; the roof has been cut away to allow movie studio lights to illuminate the interior. Painted in bright colors, Drasler’s empty spaces are unsettling, as if waiting for private encounters that all the world will see. Betty Cuningham, 541 W 25th, 212-242-2772

Anthony Patti
May 15–June 14

When you learn that Patti grew up in Jersey and was trained as a custom car and boat mechanic, a sculpture such as 2005’s Born to Run—a six-foot-long fiberglass hot rod with an engine so bloated it obscures any view through the windshield—seems just the ticket. The tumescent curves, high-gloss-orange paint job, and thrusting exhaust pipes embody testosterone rage. Prolonged male adolescence indeed! Virgil de Voldere, 526 W 26th, 212-343-9694

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Southern Gothic

A white man wearing a high-collared, richly brocaded jacket slowly rises into the frame; the chiaroscuro lighting and long, high-ceilinged halls conjure a vampire flick set in a faded antebellum mansion. A beautiful black woman swings into view—the camera cuts to the man’s hands grasping the flowing fabric of her white gown, and then back to her face which registers shame and anguish. In the mesmerizing 2006 DVD Mammy/Daddy (filmed inside the New-York Historical Society building), the husband-and-wife team of Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry has created a human “topsy-turvy” doll, using the form of this 19th-century biracial toy to capture the uneven power plays between master and slave. Elsewhere, Kerry James Marshall throws the malignancy of race hate into sharp focus by superimposing gold lockets around the faces of three white girls, isolating them as individuals even as they join the jeering crowd in a famous photograph of a dual lynching in Marion, Indiana. Thirty other artists plumb the pathologies of race in America, including the Jamaica-born Renee Cox, who contributes an astonishingly powerful self-portrait as the machete-wielding Queen Nanny—an 18th-century leader of escaped slaves—regally staring down the viewer.


“Infected Landscape”

This exhibit of four international photographers examines the stalemate between humanity and nature: Vultures feed on mountains of garbage under a crepuscular mist in Guatemala City’s dump; the dense green lushness of Korea’s DMZ is blissfully free of strife save for hedgerows of barbed wire; children stroll past trompe l’oeil trees and bucolic villages painted on the high, stone defense wall of a Jerusalem neighborhood; and, although photographed in Ireland, the thousands of red, white, and blue shotgun cartridges littering a vista of gnarly dirt piles and scrubby bushes feel like wry commentary on America’s profligate, lumber-headed militarism. Julie Saul, 535 W 22nd, 212-627-2410. Through June 30.


Lee Boroson

Sounding like the street name for a designer hallucinogen, Boroson’s sculpture Liquid Sunshine (2006) envelopes the viewer in lowering clouds shot through with shafts of light. But this roiling weather is fabricated from huge nylon pillows filled with forced air and suspended from the ceiling. Monofilament line strung from the gauzy folds to the cilia-like flanges edging a bevy of steel cherubs, flattened and screwed to the gallery floor, completes an effect that is half Spielberg, half Percocet daydream. Sara Meltzer, 525-531 W 26th, 212-727-9330. Through July 1.


“Nightmares of Summer”

Francesca DiMattio’s paintings of sailing vessels are as abject and dark as the Flying Dutchman—Ship Wreck (2006) is a collision of textures, the thick acrylic paint having been forced through coarse screens. Diane Arbus’s 1965 photo of a nudist family contrasts sagging jowls and rolls of pale flesh with horn-rimmed glasses and the sharp diagonals of some Detroit behemoth’s tail fin. Michael St. John’s hysterically deadpan collage, Dead Body Inside (2006), presents a photo of a decrepit, paint-peeling shack surrounded by knee-high weeds. Fourteen other artists from the last eighty years contribute to this descent into the season’s langour. Marvelli Gallery, 526 W 26th, 212-627-3363. Through July 8.


Christian Hellmich

These beguiling canvases feature depopulated plazas, stairwells, and vestibules, the angled planes of modernist architecture recreated in slabs of grayed-out blue, dirty yellow, and clotted red. Snaking handrails provide a sinuous counterpoint to rectangle, square, and trapezoid, drawing the eye into virtuoso palette-knifing and brushwork. The bleakness of these concrete-and-steel dead zones is transcended by Hellmich’s sharp formal instincts, which make abstract slats and checkerboards surprisingly beautiful. Lehmann Maupin, 540 W 26th, 212-255-2923. Through July 14.


Famous Monster Movie Art of Basil Gogos

Chelsea is chockablock with zombies, vampires, and other outré creatures created by 30- and 40-something artists; apparently in their youth, before art history classes taught them to appreciate Pollock’s lyrical labyrinths and Warhol’s insightful mass media dissections, their eyes were snagged by Basil Gogos’s pan-chromatic portraits, which adorned the 1960s–70s magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. From his first commission of a green-and-yellow-faced Vincent Price starring in Roger Corman’s House of Usher, Gogos’s method of mimicking colorful spotlight gels upped the eerieness quotient. This new book (introduction by Rob Zombie) is at pains to point out Gogos’s “fine art” training; indeed, his swift brush-handling, accurate anatomy (albeit often submerged beneath mutant flesh), and abstract textures easily outdistance much of the camp fare on view in the galleries. www.creativemix.com/vanguard/