For the first time in my adult life, I went on vacation. I didn’t try to organize any work for myself, and I didn’t try to make the trip into work. I visited friends and just… went to see art. And now I’m writing about it. Oops! And between you and me, I’m not sorry! I am however, sorry that not everyone reading this will get the chance to see the art I saw last week in the Bay area. As an artist who curates, I’ve always had a penchant for group exhibitions that function like a great band, where everyone can be heard equally, but the whole speaks as loudly as the parts. Last week, I had the opportunity to visit some exhibitions in San Francisco that meet that criteria.
The first, was “Portraits and Other Likenesses” at The Museum of African Diaspora, organized in partnership with SFMOMA. The exhibition focused on works from SFMOMA’s collection that exists in the sphere of art focused on identity, primarily black identity. Artists ranging from Kara Walker and David Hammons to Nicole Miller, Romare Bearden, and Nick Cave filled MOAD’s galleries with sculptures, videos, instillations, paintings, works on paper, etc. The curator’s’ choice to frame the exhibition through multiple voices, spanning several decades, all associated with the African diaspora represents identity as something that can be collectively shared, but is ultimately a personal experience that cannot be codified through the semiotics of lazy stereotypes.
Amongst some of the most striking works in the exhibition (according to my preferences, of course) were one of David Hammons powerful body prints and a Romare Bearden collage, which reads as fresh and contemporary and meaningful as the day it was finished in 1967. It was a pleasure to see Seydou Keita’s 1952-55 “Untitled” photograph in person and to experience Nicole Miller’s 2011 “Untitled” video, which simulated the anxiety, numbing, connection, and growth that comes from the postmodern computer screen; a collage of variables ranging from open institutional violence to touching or entertaining musical performances. A collection of social streams and moving images both equalize and deconstruct the the extensions of our thought streams, which in the context of this exhibition, create a complicated and expansive interpretation of Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum” (I am thinking, therefore I exist).
If I had to name a piece that especially resonates with me, it would have to be Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit,” 2009. It’s easy to be impressed by one of Nick Cave’s sound suits. The Los Angeles based artist created the first suit shortly after the 1991 Rodney King beating and subsequent uprising. The suits read as protective, ceremonial, intimidating, and sublime. Their relationship to the body instills a physical reaction from the viewer, that varies by material. In this work, a 2009 version, there is a familiarity in the piece that gains its appeal from crocheted blanket elements that peak through a lattice of several pastel enameled and brass colored flowers seemingly growing up from the suit. The need for an armor of some kind seems eclipsed by the hopefulness of the floral elements and warmth of the blankets that gain their familiarity from a nostalgia free of cynicism. It’s this quality that sends the work past the point of beauty for beauty’s sake, securing Cave’s relevance as an important culture producer.
Another museum I had the pleasure of visiting upon my trip to the Bay was the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Having followed the museum on social media and being interested in several of their programs, I was curious to visit the campus. While the exhibition upstairs, Night Begins the Day, has stayed with me aesthetically, Josh Greene’s” Bound to Be Held: A Book Show”, has definitely dwelled within my intellect. Admittedly, I don’t generally care for book shows. Books are magical expanses in compact form that don’t really need any kind of visual intervention. In this exhibition, however, Greene focused the conversation on not only the form of the book as being more or less complete, but the implications of the book as being a conductor of thought.
I had a conversation thislast semester with my university design students in which we explored the concept of displaying art. At one point the students and I grappled with the idea that a museum might be a prison for art; a place where objects and images can have no physical contact with the outside world. Instead of a perceived danger these precious items carry a recognized value that often creates a viewer, rather than an active participant. Greene seems to engage this idea by making books openly available to museum visitors through a lending library in the center of the exhibition. At a time when academic institutions are dogmatic, bureaucratic, euro-centric, and increasingly financially inaccessible, lending libraries, like Greene’s or the LA project “Feminist Library On Wheels”, or even the small lending libraries in neighborhood front yards affirm that literacy based on tactile relationships with language continues to cultivate empowerment throughout our communities.
The second half of the exhibition surveys Greene’s ongoing project, “Read by Famous” in which Greene displays a selection of 25 books that have been read and donated by notable celebrities, thinkers, and cultural icons such as Tom Kelley, Jill Soloway, James Baldessari, Gavin Newsom, Isiah Thomas, and Jon Stewart. Each donor has then written an inscription in the book as to why the book was so meaningful to them. This gesture could easily be seen as pandering to celebrity, but instead it endears us to the book and in turn even peaks some interest about the books themselves. In addition to this, the books are all eventually auctioned off to benefit book and literacy non-profits. What I tend not to care for about “book art” is that the artist often attempts to reconstruct the visual form of the book. I happen to think books are enough, as they are, just… as books. The artist, in this case, has raised the book to the level of an art object through not only its ethos and provenance, but the inscriptions from the previous owners, which are presented as photographs, allowing viewers to see the mostly handwritten text. As a skeptic who sees a great deal of art, I am rarely moved to feel connected to a stranger. “Read by Famous” and “The Library of Particular Significance” by Josh Greene at the Contemporary Jewish Museum certainly did that for me.
I also visited “Radical Presence” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The exhibition was described as, “the first comprehensive survey of performance art by visual artists of African descent from the United States and the Caribbean.” As you can imagine, the survey was powerful and complex and warrants its own write-up, so you’ll have to stay connected to Citizens of Culture to read my experience of that next time!
“Portraits and Other Likenesses” will be on display at the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco through October 11th and “Bound to be Held” by Josh Green will be on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco until June 28th.