By Shana Beth Mason
Standing in the main courtyard of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, three wings are joined end-to-end, are exposed through glass walls. In the center of one wing, a giant, black steel sculpture in the form of a recticle, commonly known as crosshairs, stands almost nine feet high. The question as to whether the observer is targeting others or they, themselves, are made a target begins a wide-open dialogue on social and cultural relationships initiated by New York-based artist Rashid Johnson. A Message To Our Folks (named after a 1969 album by avant-garde jazz collective The Art Ensemble of Chicago), first opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in April 2012 and was later hosted by the Miami Art Museum during Art Basel Miami Beach that December. Lily Siegel, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the High, describes Johnson’s work built on ‘deeply personal images and elements from his own background as a black man. He makes absolutely no universal statements about race or social politics, but rather leaves it in the hands of the viewer.’ The exhibiton continues on the second floor, where several Art Deco-esque mirrored tiles double as wall units. On tiny shelves, old LPs, smears of spray-painted shea butter, a decorative plant and a mirrored CB radio (Johnson’s father wirked as a radio repairman in suburban Chicago) reflect more than just the face of a visitor. ‘I think it allows each person to find their own histories, and Rashid is very, very interested in the visual effects of different modes of history and culture,’ Siegel notes. Photographs of homeless men in Chicago (who, in the late 90’s, reluctantly agreed to become Johnson’s subjects) are presented in clean, simple glass-bound formats; although the process which produced them, according to Siegel, ‘is quite expensive and old-fashioned. Very far from the means of these homeless men.’ Other photographs emit ghostly messages from the Afro-Caribbean mystic, to the restless artist testing the limits of the Abstract Expressionist canon, to modern reincarnations of elite black societies founded in the early 20th century. Repetition, memory, stereotype, and souvenirs of the middle-class condition are all at work for Johnson: he reimagines the existence of a young black man acting as a cultural neuroreceptor.
Chilean-born, New York-based artist Alfredo Jaar weaves images of political protest, social upheaval and tiny moments of victory into moving and still image formats. For his work, The Fire Next Time (1989), Jaar chose turbulent images of the American South at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. The twenty-two elongated black boxes with white transparencies could be arranged and rearranged by the curator, at will. In this case, it was left to the Wieland Family Curator of Contemporary Art, Michael Rooks. ‘Alfredo deliberately chose to leave the orientation up to each curator for each institution it was housed in,’ says Rooks. ‘What I love about this work is that the images aren’t explicit or overtly aggressive; they’re like slightly distorted glimpses or reminders of the period.’ As exemplars, two of the boxes are two halves of the same photograph, where the torsos of a group of white police officers and their captive, a helpless black woman, are practically erased. Disfigurements and disruptions of this kind are threaded throughout the installation, where tragedy and triumph are in constant communication. There are no newspaper headlines, no subtitles to accompany the images; they are the sole receptacles of events that continuously resonate towards and into the present. The works’ title is a double adaptation: Jaar took the title from James Baldwin’s seminal 1963 publication (containing two essays which highlighted the state and nature of interracial politics and relations in the United States during the early 60’s, as well as the attitude of black Christian youths in Harlem who were exposed to Islamic principles), while Baldwin drew his title from a Negro spiritual, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time.”
Al Taylor was a rather ‘accidental’ sculptor during his lifetime. He was born in 1948 in Springfield, Missouri, and studied at the Kansas City Art Institute before moving to New York in 1970. Taylor’s drawings and paintings were unending experimentations with light and shadow, and how their behaviors appeared to the human eye. ‘It’s like he was attempting to show what light would look like if it had some physical mass,’ Rooks explains, pointing to a floor sculpture with halved steel cylinders and thin arches playing leapfrog over one another. ‘There definitely is an element of humor for him,’ he continued, ‘a combination between the physical and the absurd.’ The installation is comprised of two bodies of work: the first, Endcuts, is a series of drawings and sculptures (or tangible drawings, as it were) that seems to inform the second, Bat Parts (1993-94). A standard aluminum baseball bat is cut into four parts, each section suspended by a length of steel wire wrapped around invisible wire reaching up to an aluminum mount on the ceiling. Effectively, the severed bat hovers in space, morphing into a light tube; Taylor’s enquiries into the behavior of light through and within other objects is successfully manifested. The exhibition serves as a reinvigoration of Taylor’s practice, more of a lighthearted game between artist and object versus a hardline interrogation so commonly realized in the postmodern rat race.
Together, these three exhibitons act as elegant, powerful investigations into a viewer’s relationship to elements that quietly support events both routine and extraordinary. For Al Taylor, light and shadow play games with us. He reminds us that light is a game that, for centuries, we merely served as spectators to. Through a creative act, we become players. For Alfredo Jaar, traumas in our socio-political genealogy are rearranged through the camera lens: they transmit echoes of a moment long passed, reinvented as opportunities for change in the present. Finally, for Johnson, the markers of a young black man’s experience have, like Jaar’s photographs, seen a revival. The present moment is weightless for the viewer, but heavy for the artist; they elect to accept the challenge of sifting through a messy web of events and countless shades of storytelling. It is then left to the audience to decide how this new story ends or, more importantly, restarts.
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