An insistent physicality courses throughout Tenses, the 2015–16 artists in residence exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The show features three artists — Jordan Casteel, EJ Hill, and Jibade-Khalil Huffman — who explore the body, whether the subject’s, the artist’s, or the spectator’s. They work in a wide range of mediums, including painting, installation, performance, sound, and digital media, but Assistant Curator Amanda Hunt has solved the problem of cohesion by placing each artist’s work in a distinct space within the gallery.
In her painted portraits of black men, Casteel uses props and place in a way that evokes pre–20th century portraiture; her subjects are not deconstructed representations, but rather surrounded by clues about their occupations, social statuses, and geographic setting. Their locale is Harlem, New York, and in this Casteel’s work feels uncannily linked to the space outside of the museum. “Kevin the Kiteman” (2016) sits on a bike holding at least three colorful kites in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr State Office Building, which is situated directly across from the Studio Museum. In “Glass Man Michael” (2016), graffiti on a construction-site slab reads “Harlem not for sale—fight back,” a reference not only to place but also to socioeconomic relation to place. The suggested proximity of Casteel’s subjects to their displayed portraits evokes the old-fashioned practice of hanging paintings of living subjects in family homes. One wonders if Kevin or Michael come to the Studio Museum sometimes to look at their images, and how other visitors might respond to the rarity of seeing subject in the flesh adjacent to oil on canvas.
While Casteel’s work is powered by the implied nearness of her subjects’ bodies, Hill’s “A Monumental Offering of Potential Energy” (2016) uses the artist’s body as a metaphorical power source. “A Monumental Offering” is comprised of an undulating wooden structure that looks like a miniature roller-coaster. Where the coaster’s tracks would be, Hill has placed a continuous band of pink neon. However, the loop only lights up when Hill himself is present, lying on a wooden platform at one end of the work. “Offering” is billed as an “installation and durational performance,” and, indeed, the discomfort of lying on a wooden platform for hours on end is the first thing that comes to mind when looking at Hill’s prostration. The artist’s quiet presence in the gallery touches on the politically and historically knotty themes of the forced submission of the black body. Hill is straddling the line between impotence — lying prone and still — and power — the piece literally isn’t “on” without him. The neon light Hill energizes might represent a force, a spiritual aura, or a creative potency. Whatever the interpretation, “Offering” suggests that the black body is never powerless, even when it appears to be.
The stillness of Hill’s work contrasts with the busyness of Huffman’s: an environment of digital images, videos, projections, objects, and sound. Windshields pierced by what look like bullet holes suggest a sculptural comment on police violence, while an inkjet print, “Untitled (Landscape)” (2016), shows birds and geese in a natural setting. A video work on the opposing wall, “Stanza” (2016), features a female protagonist musing about a range of subjects, including psychoanalysis, a knowledge of black history, and a desire for violence directed at the objects of others. Huffman is a poet, and seeing his installation as a sort of spatial poetry alleviates the pressure to understand it as a singular art object. Just as one might read a poem and alternately focus on its cadence, phrases, structure, or references, or sound, one can see Huffman’s installation alternately as: a landscape peppered with violent interruption; the train of thought of “Stanza”’s female protagonist enriched by objects from her consciousness; an immersive light and sound experience in which the viewer’s affinities are the primary indicators of meaning. Huffman’s objects and video do also lend themselves to individual readings, but those are largely lost here. It would be interesting to see selections from Tenses exhibited with more room to breathe.
The intersection of video, digital work, sculpture, and performance in this show suggests the irrelevance of established genre — a trend that’s already prevalent and will likely become increasingly so. Thinking about the body in relation to, and translated through, a variety of mediums feels especially natural at this point in time; the internet and smartphones have added technologically mediated dimensions to individuals’ sense of self. Blurring visual and performative experiences no longer seems avant-garde, just current.
Tenses continues at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W 125th Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through October 30.