Yancey Richardson Gallery
535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea
Through Aug. 24
This interestingly textured summer group show organized by the New York artist Mickalene Thomas bridges a continental divide between African and American photography with a genre particularly identified with modern Africa: portraiture.
Malick Sidibé, who is now in his 70s and whose storefront studio in Bamako, Mali, is still active, gives the show a historical foundation with his pictures of Malians formally posing and at play. Zanele Muholi’s beautiful portraits are also grounded in a specific population, black lesbian communities in her homeland, South Africa. Ms. Muholi’s inclusion in June in the Documenta 13 international art show in Germany puts an institutional seal on what has been for years a powerful artist-as-activist career.
Deana Lawson’s nude portrait of a pensive looking young black man wearing traces of makeup sustains Ms. Muholi’s theme of gender as role playing. A shadowy male portrait by Jayson Keeling shifts the perspective to male on male, as does Clifford Owens’s “Anthology (Jacolby Satterwhite).” The fiercely seductive male odalisque in this picture is Mr. Owens himself executing a performance conceived by Mr. Satterwhite, a fellow artist. That work was part of an extraordinary series of performances, all to instructional “scores” commissioned by Mr. Owens from other African-American artists, and presented at MoMA PS1 last fall and winter.
In 2011, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Derrick Adams created a group of very different performances as tributes to admired older colleagues. His photograph called “I Just Crush a Lot #3” is an offshoot of that project and a reminder of how thoroughly portraits are interpretations and manipulations of reality.
They can embody the reflecting vanity of creator and sitter alike, as in Mahlot Sansosa’s “no. No. No. i definitely choose yoU,” with its head shots pasted on the lenses of sunglasses. They can market ideals, as in Hank Willis Thomas’s appropriations of 1970s advertisements aimed at Yuppies. They can be pure fiction, as in Xaviera Simmons’s scene of a chic huntress. And they can be genuine personal encounters, conveyed in LaToya Ruby Frazier’s double-portrait video of herself and her mother.
Finally, given that time is constantly reshaping every visage, the notion of portraiture as works in progress makes sense. Ms. Thomas’s Polaroids in the show are personal snapshots and material for her remarkable paintings, which are both fantasias on black identity and super-real portraits of others and self.