There is something simultaneously comic and tragic about the history of being black in the United States, and that in-between, simultaneously farcical and deplorable (and sometimes transcendent) state is often starkly rendered in our politics, our language, our laws, and our rituals. It’s also represented in our pulp fictions.
“Pulp” is one of those terms the definition of which I thought I knew, but then found I needed to look up. It refers to that genre of writing, appearing in magazines and also novels, that is populist and sensational — think dusty Westerns with silent gunslingers casting long shadows in the afternoon sun, gritty detectives in trenchcoats with upturned collars, distraught women in crisis with heaving bosoms and flowing hair as they run after their abusive lovers. Fictive pulp stories tend to catch the public’s interest with their thickly drawn contrasts and their melodrama; they push the buttons that many readers respond to — power, sex, crises of identity — and they make it easy to lose myself in the dramatic action that resolves all these dangling questions they initially set out.
It’s fitting that the artists William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson have curated an exhibition — Black Pulp! at the International Print Center New York — that connects the literary genre of pulp with one of its most powerful vehicles. The story of blackness in the United States, is a plot full of sensation: soul-crushing debasement, dogged survival, and triumphant catharsis — sometimes in violence, but also in joy. The curators could have simply used the works included to illustrate the requirements of pulp, but they also contextualize this work by presenting it along with historical printed media — magazines, books, etchings, drawings, and prints. I see how current notions of black identity in contemporary visual art are connected to a larger and wider visual skein that dates back to almost the turn of the 20th century, showing how these perspectives have a visual, graphic history as well as an intellectual one.
The vitrines are organized by themes, for example: “Historical Narratives: Jim Crow, WWII, Racist Caricature & Black Power”; “The New Negro and the Road to Self-Definition”; “Art as Weapon: Towards an Expansive Black Subjectivity.” In Crisis and Opportunity magazines published in the 1920s and ’30s, I note the stark, art deco-influenced drawings of the black figure that adorn the covers. The illustrations are high key and the black body becomes an apt metaphor for pitched struggle. On Aaron Douglas’s dust jacket for James Weldon Johnson’s, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1927), a dark silhouetted body sits among flowers and vegetation, its eyes reduced to suspicious slits as it looks on the looming metropolis composed of skyscrapers and the dark smoke of factories. The vitrines alone contain a fascinating trove of visual culture that deals with a range of themes (not only political conflict) through which black identity may be viewed: labor, sexuality, schooling, music, dance, courtship rituals.
Seeing this material makes the contemporary seem all the more nuanced and ironic. The particularly brilliant work delves into absurdity to show how very much it is a part of the collective experience of black folks in the US. For example, there is William Pope.L in “The Great White Way” (1990), wearing an ill-fitting superman costume with a skateboard on his back, crawling on elbows and knees from Ellis Island to the Bronx — a project that took him five years to film. Renee Cox also ventures into the superhero story with a print of her as “Raje” on top of the Statue of Liberty. A younger artist, Kenny Rivero, deploys the comic book iconography ironically in his painting “Gotham City Screams, Issue #4, Page 12” (2016). Here, his Batman character is abject, draped in a cape bigger than him, with speech bubbles delivering a secret language, coded or perhaps nonsensical. I love Kerry James Marshall’s very sly comics, “Dailies from Rythm Mastr” (2010), which use characters from the Yoruban pantheon hilariously mixed with art history rhetoric and scenes from urban street life, so that characters have exchanges like: “If you say post-modern, you might as well say post-black”; “That’s post-ho to you, Muthafuckaaa.”
There are conscientiously gendered stories on view as well, as in the work of Wangechi Mutu, a potent mix of mythic and radical versions of femininity — here represented by a hybridized stork/woman creature that eats snakes. On the other hand, there’s Alexandria Smith, who takes a self-satirizing view of black femininity; her recurring figure is always tumbling through situations with her pigtails flying. The exhibition features a host of other artists, both up-and-coming and well known, who stretch and extend the contours of black identity, often with humor. Black Pulp! is an exhibition that is intellectually and visually rewarding, and it demonstrates in its drawing out and extending of black identity that one of its lasting strengths has been and continues to be its elasticity — its ability to maintain that tension between comedy and tragedy. Perhaps this is part of why it’s heartbreaking.