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Art offers new notions of being black

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 20, 2001

NEW YORK -- Freestyle. The word alone conjures up images of things as being out of control, out of bounds, unorthodox.

Indeed, Freestyle is the name of a vibrant exhibition of 28 young black artists at the remodeled Studio Museum in Harlem. The show runs until June 24. I saw it Sunday with my friend Judith Lombard, an art teacher who told me about it.

I was glad to be ignorant of these artists because I could approach their work free of judgment.

My two hours of studying the works and reading the wall texts reminded me again that being black, especially being a black artist during the age of hip-hop, is an endless search for definition and identity in relation to the country at-large and inside black culture itself.

The first work, Sometimes, grabs museum-goers at the studio's entrance. It is a hypnotic, sassy video by Susan Smith-Pinelo, who dons a V-neck T-shirt and rhythmically jiggles her ample cleavage to Michael Jackson's Working Day and Night. The meaning? I am not sure. I do know that some of its meaning is related to the artist's expressiveness, her raw openness. Whatever the meaning, Sometimes manifests the exhibition's raison d'etre.

I suspect that by gyrating her goods, Smith-Pinelo satirizes hip-hop's obsession with breasts, and she attacks MTV's ubiquitous montage that demeans the female anatomy.

Five other videos, by three other artists, signal new levels of black expression. I particularly liked A Small World, a six-minute video showing that the parallel lives of middle-class Jews and blacks are not defined so much by differences in skin color as they are by class and money.

Two families are shown, in real home movies, performing identical rituals: grilling in the backyard, swimming at the beach, playing the piano, opening presents, visiting Disney World. Given the group-think in black culture, Sanford Biggers, collaborating with Jennifer Zachin, showcases a bold individuality.

John Blankston's works are solipsistic. They are fables, with characters as mythic as those of the Brothers Grimm. Tranny Witch Mocked by Donkey Boy, for example, is edgy and brilliant.

Christine Y. Kim, who wrote an essay for the Freestyle catalog, observes that Tranny Witch Mocked by Donkey Boy "represents one scene in the story of a transvestite venturing into the forest to find a lover. She encounters Donkey Boy and attempts to entice him to her home."

Did Blankston forget his race when he braved new territory, a place inhabited by apolitical creatures?

So, why such renderings at this time? Why these particular artists?

Thelma Golden, the museum's curator who brought the works to the museum and who dubbed the show Freestyle, argues that these artists are working from a "post-black" paradigm, a conscious style that emerged during the early 1990s. What, then, are the traits that make these works and their artists post-black?

"It was a clarifying term that had ideological and chronological dimensions and repercussions," Golden writes. "It was characterized by artists who were adamant about not being labeled as "black' artists, though their work was steeped, in fact, deeply interested, in defining complex notions of blackness. In the beginning, there were only a few marked instances of such an outlook, but at the end of the 1990s, it seemed that post-black had fully entered into the art world's consciousness. Post-black was the new black."

While defining freestyle as a concept and showing how it draws from contemporary influences, Golden explains the exhibition's name: "Musical metaphors had always informed the formation of this project. When I thought of some of the cultural markers that defined these practitioners, music culture prevailed.

"In the parlance of popular music, freestyle is the term which refers to the space where the musician (improvisation) or the dancer (the break) finds the groove and goes all out in a relentless and unbridled expression of self."

So, as I stood in front of one of Julie Mehertu's paintings, I knew that I was facing the work of an architectural vivisectionist. She was showing me -- through buildings -- the implosion, stasis and rebirth of contemporary urban life. I had to be reminded that she is black. Her work is freestyle in the purest sense of the term.

With this exhibition, The Studio Museum in Harlem clearly has rediscovered its founding mission: presenting "innovative contemporary art" -- not just art that conforms to racial expectations.

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