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This past week I paid a visit to the Studio Museum in Harlem, a unique space devoted to supporting the Harlem community and fostering local artists. This summer the museum is hosting five extensive exhibitions that hold true to its mission and bring both established artists and those in training under the same roof. Packed into the museum’s intimate space on 125th Street, the shows offer a tremendous range of mostly thought-provoking work, with only a few glitches along the way.
The series begins with a retrospective on the historic African American art collective Spiral who came together during the Civil Rights movement in search of moral support and a creative outlet. Working in a variety of mediums including oil painting, collage, printmaking and watercolor, the group’s members struggled to establish the role of the African American artist while also developing an aesthetic that was not solely defined by their black identities. Yet it’s hard not to feel the racial tensions of the 1960’s spilling out of Spiral’s oeuvre. Thirteen of the collective’s paintings line the far wall of the gallery, creating an explosive narrative that is overwhelmingly dark and brimming with violence. While works like Freedom Now by Reginald Gammon make explicit reference to the struggle for Civil Rights, others convey more internal turmoil such as Richard Mayhew’s melancholy landscapes. Yet despite the groups range in styles and viewpoints, Spiral was mostly a boys’ club. The museum includes work by the only female invited to be a member, Emma Amos, whose paintings of women with composite black, white, and mixed skin tones reveals both the ambiguity and fluidity of race.
Directly above “Spiral” on the museum’s second floor balcony is “Evidence of Accumulation,” which offers works by the Studio Museum’s 2010-2011 artists in residence including Simone Leigh, Kamau Amu Patton, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya. The exhibition’s curator, Lauren Haynes, attempts to neatly package the projects within the theme of collecting and accumulating ideas, objects, and materials, hence the shows title. However, as with most curatorial statements, this trope is more of a superficial organizing technique that only grazes the surface of the work’s complexities.
Simone Leigh’s installation serves up an intricately woven analysis of womanhood that unites two aspects of feminine mystique—the domestic sphere and women’s supposed emotional instability. Handcrafted ceramics in the shape of cowrie shells and roses are paired with a video collaboration between Leigh, artist Liz Magic Laser and opera singer Alice Hall Moran. Entitled Breakdown, the video captures Moran belting out phrases culled from a variety of different plays (here’s where accumulation comes in) to an empty opera house. As her voice flutters off pitch and her body convulses with despair, we watch Moran in the throws of madness as if she is Ophelia about to throw herself in the river.
What Moran is actually screeching about, though, was unfortunately lost on me: her words are partially drowned out by Kamau Amu Patton’s sound installation in the adjacent exhibition room. In 5000K Patton uses computer software to measure the intensity of the 5000 kelvin light levels in the surrounding space. The collected data is then transposed into a musical composition that floods the entire museum. I see the connection to the idea of accumulation, but again, this isn’t what I found to be most compelling about it. Rather, the mechanism that creates Patton’s orchestra placed on the floor of the gallery holds a much more mysterious aura and is almost a sculptural work in itself.
The final in-residence project by Paul Mpagi Sepuya is the least successful of the three. Taking the theme of collecting a little too literally, Sepuya shows a series of photographs shot in his studio of men from his community, several of whom in the buff with their clothes littered around them. The nudity feels gratuitous, especially since the photos’ bright lighting and commercial quality makes the series read like a glossy magazine ad. The framed photos are exhibited in rows on two wooden tables, an underwhelming arrangement that only further annihilates the individuality of each subject represented. Situated like ephemera on a mantelpiece, the men become objects for display, each one only a fragment of an accumulated set.
A more riveting study in portraiture and community lies back on the first floor of the museum in two additional photography exhibitions. Lyle Ashton Harris’ large-scale Polaroids of friends, family, artists, art collectors and himself are beautifully modest. With each sitter shot from the front and the back, the exhibit almost mimics walking through the streets of the city and the quick snapshots you get of those who pass you by.
Finally, amongst the artists of past and current generations now at the Studio Museum this summer, the institution also creates a space for up-and coming artists to explore their talents. On my way out of the museum I caught LaGuardia High School student Genesis Valencia speak about her photograph Hands with a Heart, part of “Harlem Postcards Summer 2011” that turns artists’ shots of the Harlem neighborhood into postcards available free for visitors. Valencia talked about her experience hanging out with the drummers who play under the Adam Clayton Powell statue on 125th street, especially one particular man whose outlook on life left a strong impact on her. It may be one of the simpler works on view, but Valencia’s photograph captures a poignant moment of community that perfectly conveys what the Studio Museum is all about.
All exhibitions are currently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem until October 23rd.
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