"They're not all the same color, they're not all black, they're not all, as they used to say years ago, high yellow, they're not all brown. I try to give each one of them character as individuals. And that's hard to do when you have so many figures to do, putting them all together and still have them have their characteristics." –Archibald Motley Jr. in a 1978 interview, describing the figures in his paintings
Recess, the current exhibition from guest curator Tempestt Hazel at the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) in Bronzeville, taps into both the past and the present. In the show, the work of seven contemporary artists is presented alongside pieces from nine artists from the SSAC’s permanent collection. According to the promotional write-up:
Recess is a group exhibition that uses images associated with youth and play to provide a much needed respite from the weight of everyday reality. Bringing together artists working across mediums, these works create a space that provokes the act of daydreaming and encourages one to tap into the recesses of the imagination in order to create new mythologies, narratives and histories that are unencumbered by those often tethered to the Black experience.
David Leggett, selected images from Coco River Fudge Street (Daily Blog Drawings), Mixed Media on Paper, Sizes Vary, 2012-2013. Photo by the author.
Although the blurb deserves credit for its readability and lack of International Art English, it also downplays the show’s complexity. Images associated with childhood do appear throughout the exhibition, but more as a leitmotif than a major conceit. The obvious focus is Black identity, which, considering the range of artists being shown, is a messy proposition—there’s no way these men’s and women’s diverse perspectives could possibly coalesce into a unified vision. Happily, they don’t. The result is a high concept, low pretense mix of styles, medias, and perspectives across the decades that, if inconsistent in places, more than makes up for that with candor, originality, and ambition. In this diversity, Black identity is underlined as an individual proposition.
The “Collection Artists” included in the show, all painters, range from groundbreaking art figures like Archibald Motley Jr. to relative unknowns like Eric W. Anderson and Maurice Benson. One of the standouts is little-known Chicago artist and writer Al Price, whose detailed rendering of three young girls playing sidewalk games, all dressed in proper Sunday outfits, faces the viewer on entering the exhibition room. In both this and another, smaller work (showing a girl sitting with a doll at a table), Price paints as if a spotlight were present, brightening and flattening the scene so that the children appear carved, overly sharp, uncanny. The viewer is tempted to study the elaborate details of each hairstyle and shoelace, without being sure if the nailed on smiles undercut all these appealing markers of cuteness.
Motley’s inclusion in the show seems like a natural fit given his name recognition, his status as a prototypical commentator on the plurality of Blackness in America, and his frequent depictions of jazz culture within Bronzeville. Unfortunately the included work, an emerald-green wooded scene more closely linked to his series of Mexican landscapes than to his urban scenes, contributes little to the topic of Black identity. The painting may tangentially demonstrate the fruitlessness of stereotyping Black art, but many of the more dynamic artworks also make this point while at the same time furthering the discussion of identity.
The “Featured Artists” in the exhibition are emerging contemporary artists working in a variety of media, most of them Chicago-based. Aesthetically, these works share an incisive directness that balances well against the generally more subtle collection work. They also contribute a necessary energy to the show, literally apparent in the frenetic projected works of Christina A. Long and James T. Green.
Curator Tempestt Hazel, in front of James T. Green, Instill Fear In Them Every Time They Leave Their Homes, animated gif, 2013. Photo by the author.
Green’s An Imagined Mugging is one of the centerpieces. The work is a GIF that uses the Afrika Children A Rural font, a collection of anonymous black silhouettes, to rapidly spell out “instill fear.” The phrase is borrowed from New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who described it as the goal of New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy (since banned by the Supreme Court). A number of small, handmade zines reflecting on such stereotyping, and providing a list of “organizations working hard towards non-violence” are available as takeaways.
One of the few sculptural works is a mixed-media artwork from “Afro faux.realist” avery r. young, a resident at the University of Chicago’s Arts Incubator “best known as a poet, songwriter, and performer.” The piece, comprised of several decorated plywood panels, uses constructed Afros (with no bodies attached) and deconstructed language (“been a raisin”) in a cerebral consideration of Black identity. Whereas Green’s GIF is directly referential, complex, and literal, young’s installation is obliquely allusive, (overly?) clever, and resistant to a straightforward reading. The two works, positioned on opposite sides of the interior doorway to the exhibition, balance excellently against each other.
Given the intergenerational combination of artworks, one might expect the show to be falsely teleological: “look at where Black artists were and where they are now and how much progress has been made!” Besides the strong quality of the art itself, what makes Recess successful is that it avoids any such claims of superiority. As debates over the term “post-black” continue, with arguments centering on the role of history in personal identity, it’s interesting to look back at the Collection Artists. Largely historical figures for us today, it’s worth remembering how they also interacted with history in their own times. A 1978 edition of the Alabama-based The Gadsden Times describes Al Price as, “a well-traveled painter and writer who is putting Chicago’s black history to canvas.” William McBride, another Collection Artist, focused on contemporary life and was “instrumental in documenting African-American social and political life in Depression-era Chicago.” Motley studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, won a Guggenheim to study in Europe, and returned greatly influenced by classic European painting styles. The Collection Artist’s varied engagement with history and tradition is imitated and relived by Recess’ Featured Artists today. Long, the stop-motion video artist, is in fact the 2012 recipient of the Archibald Motley Jr. SAIC scholarship.
This is not to say that these artists’ experiences or strategies mirror each others’, or to ignore the seismic shifts to the cultural landscape over the last fifty years. Perhaps Recess’ true intention is to show that questions of identity (especially vis-à-vis history) are ongoing, that these questions can be met with humor, irony, and candor. Recess on the playground is still time at school, after all, just in a different context.
The SSCAC has a storied past and is proud of being “the oldest African American Art Center in existence.” Of course, with such a past comes endless questions of archiving (with community center, not institutional, resources). Recess’ curator, Tempestt Hazel, has stated an interest in compiling histories of SSCAC’s lesser-known Collection Artists, an effort that could bring this rich history to life.
On a final note, The Gadsden Times article quoted above continues: “Pride in city officials, whose cultural commitment includes hiring 108 ‘artists in residence,’ and approving the hiring of 347 persons for work in 64 non-profit art agencies… Chicago is a pacesetter in the use of federal jobs dollars to subsidize the arts.” Further along, “[In three years] the city of Chicago has spent $7 million CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] dollars to hire 965 artists. Some 3.9 million is being spent to hire artists this year alone.” In today’s dollars, that’s nearly $26 million and 14.5 million respectively going directly to artists.
That investment thirty-five years ago helped bring us to Recess today. It’s worrying to imagine what Chicago’s current commitment to the arts and the Cultural Plan will lead to down the line. The SSCAC, the curator, and these artists are deeply invested in the cultural future. An equal commitment from our city government towards culture, towards education, towards community would go a long way towards helping them create change.
There will be an artists talk at the South Side Community Art Center on Tuesday, October 22nd, 6-8 PM and Closing Reception November 9th, 2-5 PM
(Image on top: avery r. young, Super Cool Suite, Wood, Canvas, Ink, Paint, TCB Hair Grease, and Metal, Sizes Vary, 2013.)