Upon entering the exhibition space of “Mythologies,” an excellent showing of artwork produced by six young artists at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries, the eye is almost instinctually drawn to the bold, blood red palette of Rashayla Marie Brown‘s video installation “Puro Teatro (Coming to Theatres).” Projected large upon the far wall of the gallery, the single-shot, still-frame video elegantly documents what appears to be the meditative staging of a soon to occur evocation. Brown’s hands extend from beyond the frame to light three white votive candles placed in a triangular formation on the red surface, later joined by the slow setting of a steel incense burner, rosary beads, and the black winding cord of a microphone. The video is accompanied by the tune “Puro Teatro,” meaning ‘pure theatre,’ performed by Latin soul and salsa singer La Lupe in the 1960s. La Lupe was a known practicer of SanterÃa at the time of the song’s recording, and the romantic drama of her singing coupled with the ritualistic imagery Brown has produced certainly evokes the sensation of saints being summoned.
Indeed, preceding the video spatially are three artworks intent on making explicit the theme organizing the included artworks altogether: a contemporary consideration, and continuation, of black aesthetics from a political, art-historically informed subject-position. “Black Motif,” a 7 by 6.5 foot mixed-media painting on cotton by Cameron Welch, features a golden, protruding mask in the style of African ancestral objects (or commercial knock-offs thereof) surrounded by layered, clashing colors and patterns of different kente cloths that the artist has painted asymmetrically into a patchwork composition. Neighboring the painting is “All American (Banner Series)” by Alexandria Eregbu, a triptych of bedazzled vinyl wall-hangings heralding famed contemporary black artists Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, and Mickalene Thomas as though they are college sports stars. Mirroring these works is “Pomba Gira (Deja Vu),” an installation by Brown replicating the aesthetic of her aforementioned video in three dimensional form, but instead featuring a vinyl LP copy of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s hit song “Deja Vu” suspended over two self-portraits the artist intentionally produced in the style of Lorna Simpson.
Images of earlier, though none too far gone, eras permeate throughout “Mythologies.” Elsewhere in the exhibition, Welch paints black and white appropriated civil rights era imagery for the diptych “Misspelled Aggression,” hanging the companion artworks across from one another like mirror images. Scrawling the words ‘nigga please’ over a photorealistic rendering of civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael mid-speech, and the words ‘nigger police’ over an image of attack dogs being used against black protestors in the 1963 Birmingham, AL, “race riots;” Welch’s large-scale paintings of bold aggression (both state-sponsored and grass-roots resistant) make enormous and unavoidable the persistent issue of racial violence and the failures of binary ‘riot vs. revolution’ understanding. Photographer David Alekhuogie similarly investigates the mediation of racial violence, but with more of a critical orientation towards the marketing and mass-manufacture of stereotyped black male aggression. In a stunning photo simply titled “Beef,” Alekhuogie places a super-sized McDonald’s cheeseburger (and Monopoly themed bag) at the center of two posters hanging on a deep blue bedroom wall, one of Notorious B.I.G. and the other featuring Tupac as the star of the 1992 gangsta film Juice. The work produces a thoughtful visual metaphor for the corporate profiteering of engineered black-on-black violence. In the exhibition’s most contemporary reference, Alekhuogie places a mass-produced ceramic head labeled ‘Africa, Cameroon’ purchased from a local art supply store, featuring generically racialized facial characteristics, within a pale grey hoodie now indissociable from the image of Trayvon Martin for a photograph the artist provocatively titles “Self Portrait (Africa, Cameroon).”
It is a compelling commingling of artworks: expansive in its time-lapsing pastiche of (art-)historical and pop-cultural references, polymorphous in its inclusivity of art forms (video, painting, textile, photography) typically segregated museologically. Additionally, “Mythologies” adds an interesting, youthful dimension to conversations currently about the importance and relevancy of identity-themed group exhibitions at a time when post-structural criticality and neoliberal pipe-dreams of being ‘post-whatever‘ threatens to make irrelevant concerns over specific authorship. This is particularly so in the wake of the much maligned New York Times review of “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” at MoMA PS1 by critic Ken Johnson, who reductively oversimplifies the insurgent artistic strategies of assemblage (while assuming it to be an exclusively white tradition) and insipidly criticizes a portion of that show for perceived failures in the Modernist ideal of universal aesthetic communication, as though that’s the primary artistic motivation behind producing (and promoting), for instance, gnarly, gorgeous, challenging artworks made with detritus collected from the Watts Rebellion.
What the content of “Mythologies” seem to be suggesting, instead, is that the formation of group exhibitions linked to the theme of identity offers a powerful means by which to outline, preserve, contextualize, build upon, and (as this exhibition especially makes clear) assert one’s own artwork as participating within a specific aesthetic lineage. This is, perhaps, why Beyonce and Jay-Z’s “Deja Vu” on vinyl (something contemporary being delivered through the media of an earlier era) makes for such an ample metaphor within Brown’s Lorna Simpson-quoting installation, and for the entire exhibition furthermore. It is why Welch’s and Alekhuogie’s respective aesthetic investigations of the evolving mass-mediation of racial violence transcend disciplinarity. It is also why the tongue-in-cheek cheeriness of Eregbu’s banners feels so sincere, if also abundantly fan-girl self aware. The works seem produced as knowing, generative gestures of willful apprenticeship derived from self-tailored canons of influence made available and immediate, at last.
“Mythologies,” featuring the work of David Alekhuogie, Rashayla Marie Brown, Alexandria Eregbu, Christina A. Long, Hannah Rodriguez, and Cameron Welch, is open now through January 8, 2013, at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries (33 S. State Street, Seventh Floor).