ST. LOUIS — Walking into the L-shaped projects+gallery space, you might be held up at the entrance trying to decode the message on the wall — “post-identity semiotics,” spelled out in vinyl letters — but the heavy intellectualism the words suggest is missing from the work on display in Transparency Shade. Instead, pieces by a geographically diverse group of artists ring the gallery with aesthetics of a hybrid world where identities are blurred and cultural or racial dichotomies are dissolved. The artists represent a new polycultural future for curator Modou Dieng, one where binaries are exploded into multiplicities. Throughout the exhibit, a certain naïveté or levity takes the place of vitriolic lamentations about gender, race, and culture. “Discuss us now, let our bodies be visible and divine again,” Dieng writes in the catalogue.
Taken together, the works acknowledge the multifaceted definitions of “black art” and “feminist art.” These oversimplifications, which are used to box artists into practices and symbolisms that are comfortable to the white male establishment, are immediately confused in this exhibition, where Dieng, originally from Senegal, delves into African American art with Hank Willis Thomas‘s celebratory appropriations of iconography from the civil rights movement. “I AM A WHITE AGITATOR,” reads the first self-titled painting from 2016. The only St. Louis local in the exhibition, Kahlil Irving, “challenges historical notions of colorism,” according to the show catalogue, with his mixed-media ceramic sculpture “Soul Sitters (Still Standing)” (2017). Through the downward thrust of the artist’s thumb in the clay, he looks to the earth below in reverence, as is common in African religions, rather than to the heavens above. This is one of the most poignant pieces in the show from the youngest artist.
Ayana V. Jackson’s images have become somewhat iconic for their depictions of African and/or African American identities, especially those exoticized during the colonial expansion of the Americas and Africa during the 19th century, which she makes by substituting her own body for the original subject matter. Jackson reaches back through time to purposefully subject herself to the lasting gaze of imperialism and misogyny, sometimes creating multiple images of herself to do so. Working and living between New York, Johannesburg, and Paris, she bears her own migratory identity and the diaspora of her ancestry in portraits that seem to gaze down upon the viewer, no matter where they are in the gallery.
Belgian artist Philip Aguirre y Otegui has been traveling to Africa for decades, and his piece “Théâtre Source” (2010), made in Douala, Cameroon, won the 2017 International Award for Public Art (IAPA). Aguirre y Otegui also traveled throughout Latin America, and his work emerges from the southern hemisphere as much as it does from Europe. Two small oil-on-copper paintings included in this show, “Bagdad” (2004), are reminiscent of ex-voto prayer paintings in Mexico and France. His intimate little sculptures, hybrid caricatures made from found objects that have been worn by time, compose a collaged storyboard of sketches that go on to inform his large public works cast in bronze. Aguirre’s work exemplifies the intersectionality of cultural and artistic identities during globalization, even while we attempt to classify and discover new ways of making and thinking about art. Aguirre and Willis Thomas loom over the exhibition with the maturity of experience, and with roots in multiple places.
At first I was confused by the presence of Michael Riedel in the lineup, as he seemed out of place among the other artist. But “his work is about identity in the art world,” Dieng said during the press tour. Two paintings by the German artist take up a corner of the gallery, creating a cold respite from the organic and handmade works throughout the show. His “Untitled (color)” (2013) turns the conversation back to race but also to color in art, pointing to the primitive classification of artists and people as if they were paint tubes. Riedel’s work is most powerful outside the traditional gallery space, where he plays with appropriation and often uses humor to rebel against power dynamics in the art world.
The last two artists in the show, Kendell Carter and Zoë Buckman, are the pop stars of the group, and their work would perhaps have been better suited to a show of their own. While the finishing touches on this exhibit were still being sanded and painted, tabloids broke into a frenzy announcing Buckman’s separation from her longtime husband David Schwimmer, the actor who became famous on Friends. In the gallery, the subtext of her hanging chandelier of boxing gloves made from wedding dresses, “Let Her Rave” (2016), shifted from a punch at misogyny to an intimate portrait of her own fight with marriage. Nearby, a glass boxing glove shines quietly on a pedestal, exemplifying all the soft power of her more overt work.
Carter’s “WE” (2012), rows of shoes plated in bronze and gold, creates a dissonance with Jackson’s intimate naked gaze and Aguirre y Otegui’s subtle collages. Far from the intellectual rigidity suggested by “post-identity semiotics,” a $15,000 pair of gold-plated shoes embodies the boastfulness of hip-hop culture without proposing a more sophisticated identity, which the show as a whole alludes to as being within reach. Willis Thomas connects Carter and Buckman back to the imaginations of Jackson, Irving, and Aguirre y Otegui, all the artists coming together to create an unruly idea, which is difficult to wrap your hands around but necessary for the future of artistic production.
Transparency Shade continues at projects+gallery (4733 McPherson Avenue, St. Louis) through May 27.