All over the Damn Place: “30 Americans” at the Cincinnati Art Museum

April 23rd, 2016  |  Published in *, April 2016

Kenya Barris’s Black-ish, a Wednesday-night sitcom on regular old ABC television, is simultaneously zeitgeist-y genuine, frantically people-pleasing, and deliciously aware of its own precarious situation:  a high-energy comic take on the foibles and follies of a loving upper-middle-class African American family living in the lap of Southern California luxury.  That luxury and status are constantly deconstructed in the show’s writing and performances through skewed, shrewd reconsiderations of class, race, and history.  Black-ish foregrounds the overarching whiteness of how we take in and process status-quo success as a culture, while also foregrounding how blackness informs the way people perceive everything labeled “American.”

The show’s funky sensibility is conveyed through both a wink and a sense of intense, protective love that is disarmingly sweet and while not sentimental, clear of cynicism and posturing.  The characters, the mom and dad performed by Anthony Anderson and Traci Ellis Ross leading the way, have a processed, shiny sitcom-ness to them that isn’t Cosby-Show-solemn, but more Thirty-Rock-meta, and yet by the end of every show there’s always a set-aside special moment or two, as we see the Johnsons come to terms with issues like police brutality, the history of slavery, the Black panthers, and so on.

The way I’m explaining the show may sound a little glib, but the glibness in Barris’ universe is beautifully intentional.  He and his co-writers and showrunners seem definitely aware of the risk of noise and chatter getting in the way of genuineness, allowing the audience, no matter what demographic they are, to find a way to make a connection beyond the strident social-network bromides and poses and hashtags.  In fact, a lot of Black-ish’s pleasures are self-consciously surface-oriented, quick-cut one-note jokes which get at issues without trying too hard.

Glenn Ligon, America, 2008, neon sign and paint. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection.  © Glenn Ligon

All that broadcast-TV shimmer and fluff allow for contention and truth to seep in when you least expect it.  In the show, everything is a joke, but everything truly matters.  Major case in point:  a recent episode in which the family witness a Ferguson-like brouhaha happening on TV in their plush Nancy-Meyers’-movies-like digs.  Part of the show focuses on what take-out each family-members wants to order for dinner.  That sitcom conceit allows the fear and confusion and seriousness to settle in without overtaking the atmosphere.  You see sitcom characters take the shape of actuality, while always comprehending (through Barris and company’s artfulness) that these characters are just representations trying to find a way to get closer to the real.


And that’s my jumping off point into the wonderful, whiz-bang-super-stylish universe of “30 Americans,” currently up at the Cincinnati Art Museum through August 28 of this year.  While a show that cordons off artists around a demographic (African American), the exhibit is so skillfully culled from the Rubell Family Collection, as well from the Cincinnati Art Museum permanent collection, that it doesn’t feel preachy or ghetto-ized or self-involved.  It’s a gift:  one of those museum experiences that feels both ecstatically aesthetic and politically contemporary, but you can’t really separate the two.       What Co-curators Rehema C. Barber and Brian Sholis have done with the works of these 30 artists doesn’t allow for a simple conversation like, “What is African American art?”  That’s a question so pointlessly rote it doesn’t really deserve even rhetorical status.  Barber and Sholis give us an aesthetic little universe to float around in, to feel and think things possibly about race or class or injustice, but also about how just plain gorgeous and powerful the art made by these artists actually is.

Like Black-ish, “30 Americans” pursues issues and controversies without losing a sense of absurdity and chic.  The whole show has a hyped-up deconstructed swank to it, as if glamor and anger and sorrow and wit have found ways to reintegrate themselves, cross-pollinating into a whole new species of contemporary art that’s about race and class in a myriad of ways, and yet also it’s all about appreciating the way art can allow you a respite from the hysteria of all that social-justice noise without losing sight of the reason for it.

“30 American” is all over the damn place in the best way possible, scattered strategically throughout the museum’s first and second floors.  On the first we’re greeted by Kehinde Wiley’s oil-on-canvas sumptuousness, a regal, sexy-sleepy vision that references hip-hop and sports marketing and the Renaissance in ways you can’t really attach words to, outside of “wow.”  It’s large and decadent and completely of its time but also historicizes an ache and anger that never gets philosophized, just dramatized constantly on media platforms.  Wiley’s “Sleep” is a requiem for an idea of beauty unmitigated by violence or voyeurism.  It’s religious like that.

Lorna Simpson, Wigs (Portfolio), 1994, waterless lithograph and felt. © Lorna Simpson Hank Willis Thomas, Branded Head, 2003, digital c-print. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection. © Hank Willis Thomas

Down the vestibule and to the right is a compilation of Kara Walker’s hyper-Gothic silhouettes doing their beautiful and nasty sardonic shuffles, alongside Leonardo Drew’s 1992 cotton and wax behemoth titled, “Untitled # 25” that references both concentration-camps/plantations and Heaven in one fell and dreamy swoop, as if a whole chunk of memory has fallen through the roof onto the floor, in a collapsed sense of both time and space and commodity.

The bulk of the show is unleashed on the second floor, where we’re treated to greatness in every area.  There’s a mighty fine Basquiat and a series of sneaky, doodle-like text drawings by William Pope that carry on Basquiat’s primal, super-intelligent verve and crash.   Nick Cave’s ferocious puppet-suits hang tight close to Glenn Ligon’s iconic neon conundrum, “America,” painted over the front so it shines backwards kind of like a metaphor, but also just plain beautiful to look at.  A portfolio of wig treatises by Lorna Simpson holds court across the room from Kerry James Marshall’s “Vignette # 10,” a plush fiberglass echo of Walker’s silhouettes downstairs.  Noah Davis’ paintings of basic training and prison life have an unstrained naturalness and finesse to them that reminds you of Edward Hopper’s regal fetishization of loneliness and isolation, and yet there’s a glum, sweet lyricism involved here, an echo of what you survive once you survive it.

Kehinde Wiley, Sleep, 2008, oil on canvas, 132 x 300 in. (335.3 x 762 cm). Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection. © Kehinde Wiley

The true masterpiece, though, in “30 Americans,” for me, is Rodney McMillian’s “Untitled.”  A 2005 gigantic readymade, “Untitled” is quite simply an old carpet hung up on a wall.  But that carpet has been pulled from a room in its exact ghostly shape, and merges the muscular sadness of having to go to work when you have a really bad cough with the bitter elegance of Duchamp having the unmitigated gall of plopping an old urinal in the middle of modern art.  McMillian knows his stuff, but he also seems to know that he doesn’t know any more than what’s on the wall.  “Untitled” is smart allegorical magic, nuanced enough to be funny and feral, while also ravishingly literal, each stain and slash and fray meaningful in a way you should never put into words or manufacture through other forms of representation.  You should just see it, come to an understanding of its authenticity.  Ironically, however, McMillian’s carpet-on-the-wall is also a rebuttal of authenticity’s power, its connection to lived experience now totally tenuous and canonized, static.  But still there you are, laughing and crying in its exalted tapestry presence:  class, race, humanness, history, life itself, absorbed into synthetics, now somehow reentering the atmosphere.

“30 Americans” is all of that and then some.

–Keith Banner

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