Race and Liberty in America: Review of the Collaborative Exhibition "20/20"
By Janis Petzinger
The art world can spark a revolution when it transforms competition into collaboration. We see this spirit in 20/20: The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh, a joint exhibition between the two museums, which explores how a supposedly democratic America has failed people of colour. As it grapples with racial and socioeconomic issues, the show sets a precedent for the art world to engage with a broken America, giving visitors enough meditative room to question what role we as individuals play in the country’s heartbreaking and relentless narrative of oppression.
Curators Eric Crosby, the Carnegie Museum of Art’s curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Amanda Hunt, Studio Museum of Harlem’s former assistant curator, chose artwork from their institution’s respective collections (featuring diverse media and mostly artists of color), that generates a critical discourse around American liberty, equality, unity, and individualism. As they used alliance to their advantage, the museums picked works that complement each other within six main themes: A More Perfect Union; Working Thought; American Landscape; Documenting Black Life; Shrine for the Spirit; and Forms of Resistance. According to Hunt, they conceived of the show as political conversations that unfolded between her and Crosby: “We felt it was urgent to find a way to describe visually the post-Obama moment that was looming on the horizon.”
Today, with the post-Obama, post-factual, and post-American horizon under our feet, social consciousness around race remains confused, heated, and polarised. However, 20/20 does not tackle this by fostering any kind of debate. Rather, with grace and force, the show frankly illuminates America’s racial hardships, not asking for an apology, but for an answer. This idea hits viewers as soon as they walk in and confront Pippin’s Abe Lincoln’s First Book, which shows the 16th president reaching for a book in a barely-illuminated bedroom. We are asked to follow Lincoln’s lead and confront the absence of light in America’s history.
In the six main show themes that follow, we are reminded of art’s crusading power against national inequality. The first section, “A More Perfect Union” questions the ideas of democracy and patriotism as paradigms of the American spirit. Here hangs Gordon Parks Emerging Man, Harlem NY, done for Life magazine in 1952 to complement scenes in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which shows the top of a head tentatively escape a claustrophobic sewer hole. On an adjacent wall is Jasper John’s Flag, which employs dada ideas of the ready-made, to show that stars and stripes resemble nothing but the shapes they form. When we look at these pieces of art, we question the meaning of the “land of the free” - a crucial theme of this show.
The following section, “Working Thought”, plays with themes of slavery’s legacy in contemporary labour exploitation. Here, the show bypasses the intellectual experience and goes straight to our nerves, with some of the most gut-wrenching and outstanding pieces of the show. Featured is Kara Walker’s Emancipation Approximation, where silhouetted figures flit along a canvas, some on the ground, some in the air, as they are tortured (sometimes sexually) in a cartoonish and theatrical horror by a vicious swan. The swan, referencing the story of Zeus’s transformation into a swan to seduce Leda, represents white men hiding behind their economic power to control land, slaves, and women. On an adjacent wall is Rodney McMillian’s Stripes, where a hanging striped bedsheet is painted with more stripes of melted black latex. As McMillian uses archetypes of home to explore the domain of race in his art, the essence of Stripes, which is heavily reminiscent of striped jail suits, shows the comfort of sleep plagued by the nightmares of reality. The heavy latex paint sticks to the sheet in the same way that we sometimes just can’t shake the horror of a bad dream.
Like “Working Thought”, the section “American Landscape” shows that the current state of Black America is the result of a systemic historical pain. The scenery in “American Landscape” features the economic structure that isolates minority individuals and communities. Latoya Ruby Frasier shows the forgotten Braddock, PA in her powerful photograph of a hospital building in shambles. Shown also is her outstanding “Momme” (notice the crucial combination of “mom” and “me”), which is one of her famous interior scenes that walks the line between documentation and portraiture. Like a figure by Picasso, Frasier’s face is split by her mother’s profile, resulting in mismatched eyes, nose and mouth, that come together as one—two different women, same suffering, same story. Also in this section are works by Mark Bradford, Abigail DeVille, and Kori Newkirk, who use every-day objects to unpack our natural and urban landscapes.
At the center of the show is “Documenting Black Life”, featuring work of Teenie Harries and Janes VanDerZee, which reminds us of the archival power of museums. These photographs are some of the greatest visual histories of black urban living, as Harris and VanDerZee respectively captured Pittsburgh and Harlem’s moments as bustling and exciting destinations of the Great Migration. Though melancholy, as the Hill District and Harlem are no longer hubs of black empowerment, the scenes of home and joy beautifully anticipate the following section, “Shrine for the Spirit”. Here stands Barbara Chase-Riboud’s cape of Cleopatra, Beverley Buchanan’s Sassy Shack, and Quentin Morris’ silk screen Untitled circle—all tranquil works that finally offer a hopeful introspection around ideas of strong souls that endure for generations. Here, we take a break from the heaviness of the previous sections, and experience more vibrant colour and dynamic sculpture.
The world of activism is often criticised for being disorganised and unfocused; but in this show’s final section, “Forms of resistance,” the art fights without compromise for a more inclusive America. Eric Crosby states, “The pieces in this section speak to the many ways in which contemporary artists are inserting notions of blackness and black identity into traditionally white spaces. Whether it be the white walls of the gallery, the white page of mass editorial media, or the White House itself.” At the forefront of this fight is Hawarden Pindell’s Free, White, and 21, a short film in which Pindell tells stories of her suffering as a black woman, responses from white women who say things like, “you know, you should really be more grateful,” ultimately illustrating the hypocrisy and demise of feminism that does not pursue intersectionality. Included is also Kerry James Marshall’s work, Untitled (Gallery), which shows a black woman standing in a white gallery. We do not know who she is, but we know she is disrupting the conventions of the western art world, with a proud smirk and confident posture, perhaps happy that the art (or even the gallery) is her own.Like America, the strength of 20/20 comes from its diversity. The variety of work featured - from the oil paintings of Horace Pippin to the video installation by Pindell - the types of artists, and the variety of time periods considered come together as a complex layered epic that could never be reduced to one tell-all experience of American racial suffering. In fact, one of the best aspects of 20/20 is this element of surprise; expected to be exhausted by an unending melodrama, I was humbled by the show’s maturity. The art featured is not there to scream at us in pain. Rather, it blinks at us from a far, as if to ask, “where have you been all this time?”
Only our conscience can answer to that. More urgently, 20/20 leaves us wondering where we are going, especially as the dread of history repeating itself underscores the entire show. But the CMOA and the Studio Museum of Harlem have done groundbreaking work that switches gears towards progress. By creating a unified dialogue between two institutions (something so rare for the art world) on a topic so charged, these museums have sent a message that will reverberate far beyond their halls.
Hoover, Elizabeth. “Looking at a Deeply Divided America through a 20/20 Lense.” blog.cmoa.org. 5. July 2017. Accessed 24 September 2017.
“20/20: The Studio Museum of Harlem and the Carnegie Museum of Art.” The Carnegie Museum ofArt. https://cmoa.org/exhibition/2020-studio-cmoa/. Accessed 24 September 2017. N.p.n.d.
“Mom Making an Image of Me, From the Notion of Family Series.” The Institude of Contemporary Art, Boston. https://www.icaboston.org/art/latoya-ruby-frazier/mom- making-image-me-notion-family-series. Accessed 24 September 2017. N.p.n.d.