Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"Black Art " An exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum

The small exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum curated by Sandra Jackson-Dumont includes about twenty artists. Among the well known artists are Jacob Lawrence, Gwen Knight, Kara Walker, Lester Johnson ( an abstract expressionist who included figures), Kerry James Marshall and Lousie Nevelson ! What? Who? Jackson- Dumont is expanding our thinking from black as ethnic to black as a color and an aesthetic choice, as well as a subject of black identity in art. My fellow critic with whom I saw the show was outraged by the inclusion of abstract work by white artists who happened to use the color black. She felt that it created a fudging, blurring, annoying confusion that was entirely unnecessary. Black art in the art world she declared is black artists making art. But I said, what about the fact that black artist don't always want to be ethnically trapped in representing their own histories, what about white people who represent blacks. That's fine she declared, but why black as a color, that is so generalizing the issue.
The sequence of three works by Lester Johnson, a french academician representing a black man, and Kerry James Marshall sang with resonance of different ways of viewing black people.
I think maybe my friend is right about including black as a color, that seems unnecessarily broadening. After all, this is the Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight Gallery, they represented the black experience, why shouldn't the gallery include black artists only, or sympathetic white artists addressing race, why include famous white artists who had nothing to do with thinking about blacks. Don't we get enough of that already, everywhere else.
Incidentally, this gallery is the result of vigorous local lobbying by an entity that I won't identify. For some reason it is not under the purview of American art, but rather Sandra Jackson- Dumont who is, I believe, the only African American on the entire professional staff of the museum. She is the talented and innovative Curator of Education. She also installs work in another area of the museum for educational exhibits, but I find it troubling that this particular gallery is cut off in a corner physically and mentally from the main American art gallery. I have no doubt that the curator of American art would be happy to show Jacob Lawrence and no wonder that Jackson-Dumont is including Louise Nevelson in her "Black Art" show. All ways to avoid pre selected categories is a step toward integration in the dominantly white perspectives of the Seattle Art Museum.
I am sure SAM would disagree with that characterization. After all they have an African art gallery that includes Nick Cave and Marita Dingus, contemporary African Americans. What about that? What about the Northwest Indian art galleries that include contemporary artists. This is their innovative idea, to bring past "ethnic art" up to the present. But in the end what is left for the big glamorous contemporary galleries? Michael Darling as the curator in that arena shows the "big names." I haven't checked to see how diverse those big names are. Maybe that will be for another day. Meanwhile, thanks to Jackson-Dumont for playing with the boxes in our heads.

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