by Sabrina Greig
With the recent cascade of Black Lives Matter protests last month, the exhibition Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem, comes at an opportune moment. On view for its last month at the Art Institute of Chicago, photographs from the exhibition document America’s continued struggle with racial inequality. It successfully captures the robust Black Diasporic culture of Harlem in the 1940s through the artistic partnership of Ralph Ellison, author of the canonical text Invisible Man, and the first Black photojournalist of Life Magazine, Gordon Parks.
The exhibition focuses on imagery and passages from Ellison and Park’s collaboration on the magazine essays “Harlem is Nowhere” (1948) and “A Man Becomes Invisible” (1952). Both photo essays, however, were never published. The show Invisible Man therefore showcases unreleased photographs, contact sheets, and handwritten drafts by Ellison and Parks that have never been seen before by the public. They give viewers a glimpse of the social climate that inspired the groundbreaking novel Invisible Man.
The exhibition’s subject matter ranges from socially infused black and white street photography depicting the 1943 Harlem Riots, to abstracted photomontages of urban ghettos. Select images,such as an enigmatic photograph like Emerging Man, are subtly accompanied by excerpts from Ellison’s writing printed beneath photographs on the exhibition walls (see above). The curator’s choice to merge text and photography further illustrates the artistic continuities that existed between the creative minds of Parks and Ellison.
The interplay of text and imagery more overtly demonstrates how both men inventively reimagined the sources of racial injustice in American society through the photographic medium. They playfully synthesize the characteristics of real spaces, such as depicting the first interracial psychiatric clinic of Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic, while also intertwining obscured dystopic visions of city streets submerged in shadows of dark and light.
Untitled (Harlem, New York), 1952, Gelatin silver print, from the series
“A Man Becomes Invisible” (1952), 26.9 x 34 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago
The glowing technicality of Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem. NY best exemplifies this style. It shows how the friendship of the two creative geniuses constructed an Afrofuturist aesthetic that found Black joy in the midst of poverty, racism, and urban strife. With New York’s skyline in the background, Ellison serves as Park’s muse to represent a principal scene from his novel where the protagonist seeks a safe space during the Harlem Riot. It connotes the concept that this fictive world he constructs was both a place of refuge, as well as an isolating space to become invisible from the racialized chaos of the outside world. The photograph perhaps symbolizes the contradictions of protesting during heightened moments of racial strife, where one wants to become hyper-visible to combat collective struggles, yet emotionally removed to preserve their individual sanity.
Though overtly male-centered, Invisible Man convincingly showcases the artistry of two artists who innovatively problematized the prevalent reductive representations of the Black experience in Harlem, New York. Ellison through compelling prose, and Parks through striking photographic documentation, introduced a corrective portrayal of Black culture that negated stereotypical expressions of African-Americans of the time. Doll Test, Harlem, NY is a chilling reminder of how easily white supremacy subconsciously seeped into the veins of little Black boys and girls beginning at the tender moment of childhood. Images like these introduce more complex narratives that surpass radicalized conceptions of Black culture.
Doll Test, Gordon Parks, 1947, Gelatin Silver Print,
7 15/16 x 9 15/16 in, The Art Institute of Chicago
Notes for Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1947,
The Gordon Parks Foundation.
The plethora of archival documents in the show include some of Ellison’s notes throughout the process of constructing the two photo essays for publication. In Pictorial Problem, the final sentence states, “The point photographically is, I believe, to disturb the reader through the same channel that he receives his visual information.” This strategy reveals the conceptual approach adopted by both artists. Photos such as Battered Man and Off on my Own, (Harlem, New York) are eerily uncomfortable documentations of the Black experience that American History often aims to brush under the rug.
Off on My Own (Harlem, New York), 1948 Gelatin silver print,
from the series“Harlem is Nowhere” 33.8 x 24.8 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago
Battered Man, 1948 Gelatin silver print
23.5 x 18.6 cm (9 1/4 x 7 5/16 in.)
The Art Institute of Chicago
The series of photographs present in Invisible Man at the Art Institute thus point toward an earlier form of archiving the social repercussions of racialized prejudice. Similar to role that cell phone recordings and police body cameras have played in the Black Lives Matter movement in the 21st century, Parks and Ellison understood the power of creative visions. The visual components of these recent technologies make the ubiquitous nature of police brutality and racial inequity a visceral experience for all viewers in the same manner that some of Park and Ellison’s work was revealing of similar issues. Invisible Man is exemplary of how Ellison and Parks implored an unprecedented method of documenting racialized violations of social injustice, that has finally been given visibility in the two year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder.
Guest post contributed by Brent Fogt.
Though we may be traveling, we carry with us not only our supplies and our desire for adventure but also our obsessions, doubts and fears. Regin Igloria makes this point forcefully in “How Different It Is to Be Outside” at the Chicago Cultural Center. He coopts the symbols of American road trips — the highway construction signs, way finding stations, roadside advertising, etc.— to investigate his own complex experiences with travel.
The timing of his exhibition is ideal, because school is out, and millions of Americans are now packing their cars and making a beeline to one of the 58 national parks in the USA, wanting some kind of direct experience with nature. If that experience involves hiking, they will likely encounter a brown information kiosk at the entrance to each trail. Igloria, an avid hiker and runner, faithfully recreates such a kiosk on the north side of the gallery, but with key modifications. Where park rangers might post al map or other information, he suspends a tiny piece of foliage and pins a dissected blue envelope inscribed with the word “rest.”
To the right of the kiosk is a black highway sign. Void of words or symbols, the sign sits atop a bright orange trailer with sandbags anchoring black wheels. Attached to the trailer is a metal leg from a ping-pong table, which functions as a kind of steering wheel and injects an element of humor to an object typically associated with caution and danger.
With no maps, arrows or text to tell us where to go, the kiosk and highway sign encourage us to reflect upon our personal desires. This invitation for self-examination is reinforced by Igloria’s careful integration of handmade sketchbooks into each sculpture. At the bottom of the kiosk, for example, a dozen sketchbooks rest between two planters, and in the highway sign, another dozen are shelved inside a small podium. The cover of one book reveals the word “lose,” but otherwise their contents are hidden from view.
In a wall display on the south end of the gallery, Igloria offers us a peak at what’s inside these books: a series of skillfully rendered drawings and paintings, along with journal entries and even coffee sleeves he collected while traveling. In one journal, Igloria fills one page, over and over, with the words “when expectations lead to disappointment.” Another page chronicles the chills, hunger and discouragement he experienced on a hike in Oregon. He addresses his art practice head-on in one entry:
“I never considered my work to be specifically about joy, about specific moments of happiness. But really when I look back at it, it is. It’s always taking into consideration things that essentially bring me happiness, even if it is despite the struggle, the conflicts that occur in the process of getting there.”
Igloria captures this tension between the desire for happiness and the obstacles one faces along the way in a series of paintings on the Western edge of the gallery. The paintings are crisply rendered and brightly hued, radiating a sunny optimism. The mood shifts, however, in the center of each canvas, where he alters familiar logos or icons. An “ice” logo, for example, becomes “why.” A nametag becomes “no one asked.” An oval logo (“Ford” perhaps) becomes “other.” Some of the canvases are blank, representing experiences—and struggles—yet to happen.
Near the paintings in the center of the gallery rests a cargo carrier leaning on stacks of books. Made of canvas and wood and designed to sit atop a car rack, the carrier resembles a small boat or even a twin bed. The juxtaposition of the cargo carrier and the books is especially poignant, because both are containers, the former for supplies and the latter for thoughts and ideas. Many of us travel to escape our routines and find comfort in nature, but the escape is momentary, because we carry our inner conflicts and preoccupations along with our camping gear.
Regin Igloria: How Different It Is to Be Outside
On view until August 21, 2016
Chicago Cultural Center
Michigan Avenue Galleries, 1st Floor South
Guest post by Michael Milano.
Located inside the Joyful Noise Record Store in Indianapolis, The Museum of Psychphonics is billed as “the spiritual sibling of the 24-Hour Church of Elvis, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Marvin Johnson’s Gourd Museum, House on the Rock, and of course the ever persistent siren desert song of The Thing.” Packed into a 10’ x 10’ room, the Museum is a collection of objects, artifacts, histories, and competing narratives, that have emerged from musical, magical, mystical and mundane sources.
Michael Milano: Let’s start with a basic description of the Museum of Psychphonics, or even a mission statement. What is the Museum and what is its aim?
Michael Kaufmann: The Museum of Psychphonics hopes to disrupt dominant cultural narratives, not necessarily by replacing them outright, but by problematizing them through the recovery and amplification of the psychphonic activity timeline. The Museum is modeled after a cabinet of wonders, with an emphasis on the intersections of science fiction, race, music and Indianapolis. The Museum has always existed, this is just the first time the objects and stories have been gathered into the same room.
MM: Okay, let’s unpack that a bit. What is the psychphonic activity timeline? Or, for that matter, what are psychphonics?
MK: Psychponics is the glue for the universe. Whether you embrace an origin story of the voice of the Creator speaking the universe into being, and/or the Big Bang exploding and resounding across the expanse of nothing/everything/never, now and always…our existence, our realities, our universe are built from the resounding echo of this ancient and eternal sound. Psych from the Latin psych?, from Ancient Greek ???? ?(psukh?, “soul, breath”) and phonic from from the Greek phon– (alternate form of phono-), from Ancient Greek ???? ?(ph?n?, “sound, voice”). The sound of breath.
MM: So how does the sound of breath disrupt dominant cultural narratives?
MK: It isn’t just the sound of breath, but the fullness of breath, in all of its possibilities and complexities. As a society we have built systems that continue to limit, edit, and narrow our experience by algorithmically feeding back to us that which we feed into this machine of mediated awareness––our subscriptions, our channels, our likes. Many of us thought the new Information Age would be a telescope or microscope, or even a window at best. Instead, this black mirror, as it has been called, is like a funhouse mirror that presents an exaggerated version of self. We come to believe in that version of self. The Museum of Psychphonics offers a kaleidoscope and a kaleidophone of light and sound to expand our definitions and experiences by creating juxtapositions and calling attention to those things that too often only exist at the periphery.
MM: Let’s turn our attention to some of the objects in the Museum’s collection. Can you give us an example of some of the things that we will encounter when we visit the Museum? And perhaps the way that these objects encourage us to have experiences outside of the “black mirror,” the self-referential/self-affirming echo chamber of our algorithmically-mediated online life?
MK: With every new medium (audio recording technologies, photography, film, video, the Internet) we see the emergence of new mythology. It is like a collective unconscious allergy to the dominant narratives. The stories that survive form our histories and, in turn, our shared cultural systems. But there are other stories, and these are critical to capture and tell as well. We sense when they are missing and sometimes we replace them with new myths. Whether they are true or not isn’t important. What is important is that they are purposefully being told or not told. The Museum tells some of these stories through the objects that are charged with meaning because of their past proximity to the subjects of the stories. An ashtray from a Burger King in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Dirt from sacred sites, deemed sacred by different groups and cosmologies. Parliament Funkadelic’s Baby Mothership. The soul of Indianapolis. And now the objects’ proximity to one another attempt to tell new stories, to create new myths.
MM: Speaking of myth in relation to objects reminds me of political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In the Human Condition, she says, roughly, that action––doing deeds and telling stories––creates meaning for the human artifice; without being talked about and acted with/in, the world is merely a heap of unrelated things. In other words, it is narrative that makes meaning out of the world of objects.
To my mind, many of the objects in the Museum require a similar reliance on narrative in order to take on a patina of significance, and become relics and artifacts. Is this what you mean by mythology? Or do you mean something more spiritual and/or mystical? Do you believe that the objects are imbued with their own significance, or that they take on significance because of the stories we tell about them?
Are these even the kinds of questions that the Museum is interested in taking up?
MK: That is an excellent question, and perhaps at the heart of the Museum. I don’t think it is an either/or but rather a both/and. Let’s take the sacred dirt for example. Robert Smithson’s Mirror Displacements are a good parallel. I do believe there is a spiritual/mystical component to Smithson’s work by disrupting the “natural” landscape both through his interventions, but also through his physical collection of material from these sites and later placement in the gallery. I don’t see such a divide between conceptual, physical, spiritual, and mystical. These are all different ways of interpreting our humanity within time and space. Our decision to select and place these items within the Museum gives them a heightened energy/significance/meaning. That is the dangerous accountability that comes with curation. Curators are storytellers. Museums are libraries for these stories.
MM: Nice. I like the idea that curators are storytellers, and that museums are merely libraries for these stories. I was going to ask why call the collection a museum.
So, how does the Museum fit within a broader context? Geographically, it’s a small room within Joyful Noise, within the Murphy Building, within Fountain Square, within Indianapolis, within Indiana, within the Midwest, etc. How is this an appropriate site for the Museum?
Could you also contextualize it in relation to other alternative museums, cabinets of curiosities, roadside attractions, etc.?
MK: The context is both thematic and strategic. I will discuss these in concentric circles. Joyful Noise Recordings is at the forefront of asking questions about music and materiality. Their limited edition products and digital dissemination understand the paradox of today’s consumer. This longing for instant and universal access in tension with wanting to be part of a community, something smaller, and to be a collector of the unique and handmade is what is defining how we move forward into the future of cultural consumption. And Joyful Noise also celebrates the weird and the wild of music, so, stylistically, they are an extension, or branch, of the larger tree of psychphonically significant cultural movements.
What is strategic about the location is the ability to set up a museum that requires no staffing or board of directors. It is housed behind the counter of their record store, providing convenient staffing for the Museum without extra cost or hassle. The Murphy Building and Fountain Square have served as the city’s ground zero for experimental art and music for over a decade. Therefore, this felt like a natural fit as well.
And to your question about Indianapolis, Indiana. It is no coincidence that this is where the Baby Mothership has landed. Indiana is an approximation of the rest of America, and Indianapolis is the prototypical American city. Now, I don’t mean to say that Indy is not unique or differentiated from other mid-sized cities in the U.S., but if something doesn’t work in Indy, it won’t work anywhere. This city is a laboratory. It is a battleground for ideas. It is truly the crossroads and, from these crossroads, ideas and movements can permeate outwards to the rest of our country.
Now, as far as other museums and attractions are concerned, in our press materials we have called reference to contemporaries such as the Museum of Jurassic Technology, House on the Rock, 24 Hour Church of Elvis, etc. But we are really drawing from a deeper tradition of individuals such as Charles Wilson Peale and P.T. Barnum. Regardless, the common theme is a curatorial philosophy that leans more towards speculation and open-interpretation than overly oppressive taxonomic and didactic assumptions.
MM: The Museum has already released a Didactic, designed by the wonderful folks at PRINTtEXT, as well as the Dreamer’s Oracle, produced by Yonder Bound. I know that the Museum only just opened on March 4, 2016, but could you speak to its future? What else is on the horizon?
MK: The Museum is in the on-going curatorial care of artist/archivist Kipp Normand. It will continue to evolve under his direction. We are also in the planning stages of putting on performances and other programming, like any responsible museum should be doing. We have a long-term agreement in place with Joyful Noise, so we will stay put for the next couple years and wait and see what the future will bring.
The Museum of Psychphonics
Joyful Noise Recordings
1043 Virginia Ave, Ste 208, Indianapolis, Indiana 46203
Michael Kaufmann is an artistic manager and cultural entrepreneur, working at the intersection of cultural, economic and community development. He has worked for over a decade as label manager for Asthmatic Kitty Records (Sufjan Stevens, My Brightest Diamond, etc.), and in addition to his current full-time position with the public hospital system in Indianapolis he manages Son Lux, Oliver Blank and Hanna Benn. He is also the founder and curator for Sound Expeditions, a project that is soundtracking the city of Indianapolis. http://www.thisismeru.com/info/
Michael Milano is an artist and writer, currently based in Indianapolis, IN. www.michaelmilano.net
Guest post by Noah Hanna
Kerry James Marshall: Mastry; the first major museum retrospective of the artist’s work opened on April 23rd at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Organized collaboratively between the MCA, The Met, and LAMOCA, the exhibition gathered national allure prior to its opening; and it seems only appropriate that B@S join in the discussion.
The MCA website proclaimed Marshall “one of the greatest living artists, and he responded with perspective, telling the Chicago Tribune “I’d take a James Brown introduction, ‘hardest working man in show business.’ ” At 60, Marshall is regularly seen meeting and greeting avid fans at the museum, always with his infectious smile, warm eyes, and kind demeanor. It is easy to admire Kerry James Marshall simply as a person; and then there’s the work he creates.
One could only assume the considerable pressure felt by Marshall upon opening this exhibition. To start, the title, “Mastry” is a formidable expression that no self-respecting artist would dare assign to their own body of work. The concept of the retrospective itself is foggy in contemporary art. The term connotes a fixed span of time with an inevitable conclusion; an indication that the artist whose work is on display has reached his creative climax. Frankly, retrospective usually denotes the work of an artist who is no longer creating. So what does this mean in contemporary art which defines itself by its association with the living? Does this mean that the artist who is given a retrospective within his lifetime is considered finished? Much to the contrary; Kerry James Marshall and Mastry have important work to do.
Kerry James Marshall is a painter, and a figurative painter at that. It feels appropriate that a mode constantly questioned for its validity in the twenty-first century should be the one Marshall employs to push the medium forward. His use of Renaissance and Baroque compositions, scale, and themes are apparent and necessary. Motifs of spirituality, strength, domesticity and the human condition come to serve as the foundation for his work, much as they did for Titian or Carracci.
Since the late 1980s, Marshall has been identified as a painter focused on the representation of people of color; but ample care is given to the history of painting itself. Marshall’s Beauty Examined (1993) draws close comparison to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) in its depiction of a black woman laid out as an anatomical exhibit. Reference points across her body indicate areas of beauty in the subject; and the words “Beauty is only skin deep” rest in the curvature of her frame.
Though Marshall has a deep admiration for the work of Renaissance masters and his own paintings draw heavily from their conventions, the depiction of the black figure is his passion. In the large-scale School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), Marshall paints the interior of a beauty salon that can be seen from the outside in a 2003 painting from his studio window, 7 am Sunday Morning (also on display in the exhibition). While the scene is brimming with references to Black Nationalism and power, including posters of Lauryn Hill and Chris Ofili, I found myself most captivated by the skewed and elongated image of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty affixed to the floor. In this imagery, Marshall invokes a 1533 painting entitled The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. In the classic painting, as two men proudly pose for their portrait, a skull rests below them in the same elongated form, perhaps as a memento mori. As the young ambassadors face the inevitable but obscured prospect of death and decay, the exuberant clientele of the salon face the unspoken expectations of white female beauty that lies just below them; a very young boy cocks his head to observe the face on the floor in the correct perspective.
Much of Marshall’s work addresses domesticity and celebrates the mundane nature of everyday life. There is a keen awareness that images of black lives simply do not exist in art, and that those of color who do appear within the historical canon are portrayed as servants, concubines, or villains; I am reminded vividly of Manet’s Olympia when I say this. Marshall masterfully captures reality in his paintings; images of gardening and camping are paired with expressions of intimate, unencumbered love. There is a palpable urge to smile when looking upon Marshall’s smitten lovers.
However with reality comes an acute awareness of history. It’s in this dichotomy that Mastry excels above and beyond. There are several cathartic points within this exhibition, images that speak volumes to American history, both past and present. At times I found myself astonished at Marshall’s apparent prophetic imagery. Lost Boys (1993) commemorates two young boys whose childhoods were abruptly cut short. One boy glances at the viewer, a brightly colored pink toy pistol in his hand, referencing a report Marshall had heard of a child killed by police for brandishing the toy. A frame from Marshall’s ongoing comic series Rythm Mastr sees a black man confronting a television reporter following a shooting. “I saw the whole thing and it wasn’t nothing like they said!” he exclaims. While we see these today as painfully indicative of a recent incident that occurred in Cleveland, and others throughout the country, I find myself forcing to remember that Marshall does not possess the sage wisdom of prescience and that rather he depicts life as it is.
I cannot deny that myself and many of my peers have been blessed with the privilege to be detached bystanders to these realities: holding onto trivial facts concerning isolated incidents of unrest in Los Angeles in the early 1990s; a basic curriculum knowledge of the racial movements of the late 1960s; and a junior high school reading of Christopher Paul Curtis’ 1963 book The Watsons Go to Birmingham. This is why the Kerry James Marshall retrospective matters now and why his works are such an accomplishment. Marshall’s ability to create figures who possess intricate personalities gives them their poignancy, the stoic civil disobedience and ardent steadfastness of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the unrepentant power of Malcolm X, a combination that seems both at odds and as imperative as the two leaders were. The violence of Marshall’s images of Nat Turner and The Stono Rebellion are subtle, and Marshall adamantly makes sure it is not the focus of the work; the figure and its identity are foremost.
Nothing within art exists within a vacuum or free from what has come before it. Even an action in condemnation of the past is a response to it nonetheless. Art is a beautiful and equally bitter amalgamation of human history. Very few artists capture this better than Marshall. We cannot change the art historical canon any more than we can change the past, but we can build on it. Painting an ever more crystalline and inclusive image of our shared history. I can only hope that Kerry James Marshall, the faces he so magnificently paints and the stories he tells, enter into the scope of art history so that they may be looked on in the future with the admiration and eminence that they so rightfully deserve.
Guest post by Brent Fogt.
Glass geodesic domes play a leading role in Christine Tarkowski’s “Chthonic Void” at Devening Projects. The domes symbolize utopian ideals and their failure to take root. The exhibition, by contrast, is an unqualified success.
The main gallery features four of Tarkowski’s glass sculptures, two of which rest on pedestals in the center of the room. Unlike the monumental scale of some of Tarkowski’s past work, the scale of these sculptures is closer to architectural models. Made of stacked, softball-sized glass domes, the sculptures are covered with shiny black liquid that brings to mind chocolate syrup. The stacks seem simultaneously precarious and grounded, unstable and solid, animated and static.
This tension between movement and stasis is repeated in two enormous paintings that surround the sculptures on opposite walls. Composed of overlapping diagonal stripes that form moiré patterns, these paintings vibrate, ripple and bulge the longer you look at them. When the eyes feel fatigue, rest is available at the edges, where raw canvas is left unpainted.
On the wall next to the paintings are two small, embossed works on paper. These pieces, which also contain overlapping patterns, create a subtler moiré effect. This quieter approach is an ideal counterpoint to the larger, more intensely hued works on canvas.
Down the hall from the main gallery is a room completely devoted to Tarkowski’s glass works. The space is stunning. Eleven black sculptures, all a combination of glass on glass or glass and steel, lie on all-white pedestals that span the center of the white room, creating vivid contrasts not only between light and dark but also between glossy and matte.
The sculptures resemble unearthed architectural ruins that have been exposed to extreme heat and are melting, dripping and decaying before our eyes. Some of the drips form pools over sunken areas of the geodesic domes. Others are as thin as string or spaghetti and drape themselves over tenuous, broken grids of steel.
“Chthonic,” in fact, means subterranean—in, under, or beneath the earth. In classical mythology, “chthonic” refers to spirits that dwell under the earth. The show title “Chthonic Void” is especially fitting, because Tarkowski’s glass sculptures seem both worldly and otherworldly—both part of, and separate from, the earth itself.
Exhibition on view at Dan Devening Projects, 3039 W Carroll Ave.
April 3 –May 14, 2016