SAN FRANCISCO — Pigment is the focus of two very different shows currently on display at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. One confronts a particular episode in the history of blackface, with all its attendant pain and derision, while the other is preoccupied with a particular blue and its associations with genocide. Both exhibitions deal with traumatic histories that are far enough in the past for most museum guests to have experienced them only through history books. But they resonate even today, as racism and genocide persist.
Both works — Edgar Arceneaux’s Until, Until, Until… and Yishai Jusidman’s Prussian Blue — have considerable emotional weight, but only the former succeeds as an artistic project. While Arceneaux’s examination of blackface complicates the viewer’s experience of history, asking them to reflect on their own spectatorship of trauma, Jusidman’s examination of the Holocaust makes it difficult to engage with his subject, except within the specific confines of his exhibition.
Arceneaux has done some heavy lifting by taking up the subject of blackface — and he asks us to carry some of the burden. Until, Until, Until… is a play and video installation about an infamous 1981 performance by the actor Ben Vereen. It’s a show within a show: Arceneaux has cast the actor Frank Lawson as Vereen, who, in turn, was imitating the vaudeville performer Bert Williams.
Vereen, who is black, performed a two-act performance at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration ceremony. The first act, a performance of the famous show tune “Waiting for Robert E. Lee,” featured Vereen in blackface makeup. But the live TV broadcast was cut before the second act, in which Vereen performed Bert Williams’s signature tune “Nobody” and removed the makeup, as a repudiation of segregation and a celebration of Williams’s legacy as a pioneering black performer.
The optics of Vereen performing in blackface, in front of an audience of white elites — especially Ronald Reagan, whose political career devastated communities of color — did not sit well with a national audience, and drew special condemnation from black Americans. Vereen’s acting career, which included a role in the TV miniseries Roots, suffered. Arceneaux projects a filmed re-staging of Vereen’s performance against a scrim, flanked by abstract projections, giving the set the feel of a nightmare. The installation juxtaposes Vereen’s original performance and the reenactment by Lawson, who powerfully expresses wounded vulnerability and evokes the moral injury of Vereen’s inauguration debacle.
In the 1981 broadcast, and in Arceneaux’s modern retelling, the camera flips back and forth to reactions from the audience. In the inauguration footage, the laughter of Reagan and other white audience members are as unsettling as Vereen’s blackface. In Arceneaux’s live taping, contemporary audiences look either disturbed or confused by what they see; one woman quizzically scans a piece of paper, likely a program, to make sense of the play. By re-enacting Vereen’s full performance in two acts, and showing contemporary reactions to it, the installation gives us space to consider Vereen’s artistic intent and eventual failure, in light of our own discomfort and shame. It expresses empathy for the performer, but also the seeming impossibility of redemption.
Yishai Jusidman’s Prussian Blue similarly, but less successfully, attempts to mine the effects of trauma and memory — in his case, through a series of realist landscape and interior paintings. The pigment he has chosen, Prussian blue, chemically resembles the Zyklon B gas once used at Nazi death camps. This reveal serves as the show’s profound and edgy thrust. “My paintings do not deal with the Holocaust, but rather with the possibility of its representation,” Jusidman told Haaretz in 2013. Once the shock wears off, however, the paintings feel flat and disingenuous.
The interiors of Nazi gas chambers and the interior of the Haus der Kunst, an art museum built by the Nazis, are some of the subjects of Jusidman’s paintings, though others depict innocuous landscapes. His paintings of Nazi gas chambers contain subtle flesh tones, to invoke the actual people murdered in them, representing the horrors of the Holocaust in only the most literal sense. They seem austere and neutral from a distance. But up close, these paintings feel lurid and exploitative, like the establishing shot of a snuff film.
The museum asks visitors not to take any pictures, out of respect for the subject matter. This decision seemed strange. These paintings are not memorials to the Holocaust. They are thought experiments in which the artist attempts to confront his own dislike for allegory by representing the Holocaust in the most literal-minded way. The paintings announce their cleverness and attempt to be provocative, but the conceit seems as flat and muted as the paintings themselves.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that a painting by Yishai Jusidman depicted the exterior of the Haus der Kunst. The painting depicts the main gallery interior.