POWER at Sprüth Magers
By Anna Garner
Through June 10th
From post-Civil War photographs to Simone Leigh’s 2017 terracotta and porcelain sculpture, Stone (Black Mountain), POWER at Sprüth Magers presents a comprehensive overview of the ongoing history of the arts and visual culture of African American women. The line-up includes nearly every major player and contributor including, but definitely not limited to Lorna Simpson, Elizabeth Catlett, Ellen Gallagher, Loraine O’Grady, and Alma Woodsey Thomas. The mediums and aesthetic styles are wide-ranging: plaster figural sculpture, found object sculpture, video, photographic documented performance, painting, and more. The broad yet interconnected practices of these women have influences from traditional folk art, such as Betye Saar, whose assemblages often include references to ritual, folklore, and African American craft forms, and from Modernism and Abstraction, such as Howardena Pindell whose 1971 Untitled was influenced by Pointilism and Minimalism.
The exhibition is most compelling in the uncommon installation of the works, hung much closer than is currently gallery standard, even at times obscuring part of a piece by placing another directly in front. This creates disrupted viewpoints and causes the artists to be studied in concert with one another. Through this, an alliance of intersecting influences is foregrounded and the individual artists dissolve into a formidable collective. These methods additionally stymie the viewers’ expectation of fully visible perspectives, suggesting a small but present echo to problems of limited access and representation that underlie the very need for the exhibition.
One such overlapping is between Steffani Jemison’s Escaped Lunatic, a video with scenes of parkour athletes repeatedly running through the frame, and Renee Stout’s Strange Oracle, a small assemblage of a white rose and an arched box, wallpapered with teeth, with a small black figurine inside. While Stout combines personal narrative with fortune telling and ritual, Jemison takes a physical approach, mimicking the early cinematic chase to alter perceptions of the pursued and the pursuer. Despite the differences, a linkage is made between them, as each in their own way deal with a social or personal revisioning.
In some instances the works form distinct relational gazes, such as Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller’s, Bust of the Freedman, that sits on a pedestal directly in front and facing Sondra Perry’s video, Black Girl as a Landscape, seeming to actively watch the work play. Vaux’s realistic figural rendering of a freed man with his chin leaning upward and Perry’s abstracted and obscured figure of a black woman, that provokes looking but rejects full access by that look, conveys complexities of representation and viewership.
The exhibition catalogue raises an important question to the artists, asking, “Why do exhibitions that are organized around identity continue to be important in our day and age?” The individual responses reveal the layered experiences of operating as a player not directly endorsed by a white dominated art world. Though clearly curated around the framework of identity, the show negates prescribed categorizations of race and identity; it does not present the works as peripheral explanations of the black/female experience. Instead it asserts the work’s place in contemporary and canonized art history, providing direct examples of interaction with folk art and art historical movements. The exhibition lets the works exist, take up space, and find intrinsic links, making its own histories, greater than that of the history inscribed by the outside; and this is the power of POWER.