This Week: An interview and guided tour with photographer and teacher Dawoud Bey.
Dawoud Bey: Harlem, USA
Wednesday, May 2, 2012–Sunday, September 9, 2012
In 1979 African American photographer Dawoud Bey (born 1953) held his first solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, showing a suite of 25 photographs titled Harlem, U.S.A. Bey had been in residence at that museum for one year, and he had made the surrounding neighborhood a subject of study since 1975. Though raised in Queens, Bey and his family had roots in Harlem, and it was a youthful visit to the exhibition Harlem on My Mindat the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969, that had given Bey his determination to become an artist.
Harlem, U.S.A., which has never been shown complete since the Studio Museum exhibition, appears fresh today partly in its manifest difference from much of Bey’s later work. The prints are not large, not in color, and do not come in multiple parts; the subjects are not all adolescents, and they do not “sit” for the artist but were found by him on the street. And yet all these photographs are sensitively composed and radiate an emphasis on the calm and dignity that would become hallmarks of Bey’s approach. Like August Sander, Bey wanted to show the “types” of Harlem’s residents: the barber, the patrician, the church ladies, the hip youth. He was searching for a way to combine the specificity of photography, which only knows how to record details, with the diversity of Harlem, a neighborhood as varied as any in the country. And he wanted to do this without courting stereotypes.
Thanks to the efforts of more than 20 patrons, led by Leadership Advisory Committee members Anita Blanchard and Les Coney, the complete vintage set of Harlem, U.S.A. has been acquired by the Art Institute. A further five photographs from that time, never before printed or exhibited, will be donated by Bey to the museum this fall. Complementing this exhibition are a selection of permanent collection works in Gallery 10 curated by Bey as well as a career survey of Bey’s work presented at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago from May 13 through June 24.
Dawoud Bey is a professor of art and was named Distinguished College Artist at Columbia College Chicago, where he has taught since 1998. Bey studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and holds an MFA in photography from Yale University. His work has been the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Walker Art Center (1995) and a four-year traveling exhibition, called Class Pictures, mounted by Aperture and first shown in 2007 at the Addison Gallery of American Art.
A catalogue accompanies the exhibition with images of the entire photographic series and essays by Matthew S. Witkovsky, Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography, and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of the monograph Harlem Is Nowhere.
Mark Staff Brandl, the Central European Bureau and EuroShark, is in Central Illinois this time, interviewing Prof. John Jennings and Damian Duffy, curators of the traveling exhibition “Out of Sequence: Underrepresented Voices in American Comics,” which originated at Krannert Art Museum in Champaign. Jennings and Duffy discuss their curation of several shows, their own art and writing such as the graphic novel The Hole, their teaching, the extension of sequential art beyond the “Masters of American Comics” notion, theory, the socio-political, African-American culture, impurity, art history and more. Hey Kids, Comics, Fine Art and Filosofizing! Big fun for one and all
Art21′s blog has posted an interview with former BAS guest Kerry James Marshall. They sat down with Marshall while he was installing his show ” Black Romantic” at Jack Shainman Gallery. The video on their website is worth checking out.
Below is an excerpt from the interview.
ART21: What’s the relationship between your series of Vignettes (2003-07) and what’s commonly referred to as post-black art.
MARSHALL: The work of African-American artists has for a long time been seen more as a kind of social phenomena instead of aesthetic phenomena. The social implications of the work — be it identity politics and things like that — seem to be privileged in terms of the way the work is received, as opposed to any kind of aesthetic project or intervention the work might be organized around. And so if you read any of the critique that was made around the Freestyle (2001) show at The Studio Museum in Harlem, you’ll find an undertone that seems to suggest that the mainstream critical world and art aficionados were tired of this whole identity politics and multiculturalism moment.
If you examine the subjectivity that a lot of African-American artists address, it often has a kind of cultural, social, political, or historical angle to it. So for the mainstream to suggest that it was sort of tired of having to address those kinds of issues, then, what’s really left for these artists to do if that’s something that’s meaningful to them? On some level, I thought maybe the only thing that was left to do was to make paintings about love. And to take a cynical approach to the concept of love, to the concept of the Vignettes (2003-07), so that they don’t seem to directly address the social and political issues that had been relevant to me and maybe to a lot of other artists who want to make work.
I began by looking at a lot of 18th Century French painting — Rococo work — like Boucher, Fragonard, Bouguereau, and other artists who themselves are also critiqued but critiqued for a lack of political depth in their work, for the frivolity of the work and for the work being kind of saccharine and sentimental and overly puffy and flowery. I started to take those two things and see if I could put them together — to preserve a certain element of the social, political, and historical narratives that are still important to me, but also to deal with the sentimentality, frivolity, and excesses that are embedded in Rococo painting.
ART21: Why are they painted predominantly in black-and-white?
MARSHALL: One of the reasons I use the grisaille technique in those paintings was to deny a bit of the Rococo. If you take a genre of painting that’s recognized for being pretty or flowery, but you want to start to do some other things, then you have to strip away some of those characteristics. One of the first characteristics is the over-investment in color that those pictures would have. So I stripped away the color, which reduces a certain amount of sweetness in the pictures. Black and white always tends towards a level of seriousness, and you can use it to avoid sentimentality when you’re dealing with highly keyed chromatic kind of relationships. The only color note in there is the cartoony pink in the hearts. The pink is a way of refusing to deliver on all of the points of which grisaille is supposed to deliver. And I chose to paint the hearts pink specifically to emphasize the disconnection between the overtly romantic imagery in the foreground and the historical or political imagery in the background.
ART21: What advice would you give to younger artists?
MARSHALL: The drive to be relevant — not just for yourself and the people who like your work — has moved a lot of artists throughout time to do the kinds of things they do. If you look how artists became artists in the past, there were smaller numbers of people vying for positions in the royal courts and churches and atelier system. They didn’t have five thousand people coming through the system back then. But now we have these graduate programs at universities that are putting out thousands of credentialed artists every year. And so what are these artists trying to do? They are all trying to get a gallery show. They’re trying to get the grants. They’re trying to get written about in the newspaper. They’re trying to get their work collected. They’re trying to do all of those things so they can keep on making their work.
Now the only way you can do that really is to distinguish yourself from what everybody else in the field is doing. And so if you were taught while you were in school that being a part of the club — being one of many amongst other artists — that that’s somehow worthwhile, then how do you sustain your development and your productivity? What do you aim for?
Whatever it is you’re aiming for has to be judged by somebody outside yourself as having a kind of value. But if you just leave that to people who are out there, who somehow supposed to know more about what you’re doing than you do, then I think you are in a world of trouble. If you don’t have any mechanism to determine to some degree what your chances might be of achieving the kind of success as an artist you want to achieve, then you’re in deep trouble. And I think there is a lot that can be done. I think you can decide. And the way you decide is to know what it is artists are trying to do and what is meaningful to the discipline above and beyond what you think is meaningful to you as a person trying to express yourself.
This is why I say it’s not about self-expression. If it were really just about self-expression, then that would require a receiver who is so sensitively attuned to your sensibility that they are capable of recognizing an intrinsic value — not in what it is you’re doing, but who it is you are.