“I’m especially excited about Graphic Revolution because of the arc of time of ‘Graphic Revolution’ really overlaps with some of the best eras of African American art making,” said Adrienne Davis.
By profession, Davis is vice provost and the William M. Van Cleve professor of Law at Washington University. But she holds her own alongside the most-informed and eloquent curators when she talks about visual arts as an influencer, collector and enthusiast.
Such was the case on Saturday morning when she joined Elizabeth Wyckoff, curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, and Gretchen L. Wagner, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, to discuss the African-American artists represented in the Saint Louis Art Museum’s latest exhibition “Graphic Revolution: American Prints 1960s to Now” on a guided tour with the Friends of African American Arts group.
Wyckoff described “Graphic Revolution” as a wide ranging, inclusive survey of contemporary art in the United States over the past six decades.
“African Americans have been making art since we’ve been brought to this country,” Davis said. “But here you find the expansions of the genres and all the different kinds of art in the 50s, 60s and 70s – and of course the contemporary era.”
Nearly 20 works by black artists are featured in the exhibition, which closes this Sunday (February 3). They include Kerry James Marshall, Glenn Ligon, David Hammons, Robert Blackburn, Betye Saar, Lorna Simpson, Nick Cave, Ellen Gallagher and Martin Puryear. The exhibition includes works from Davis’ personal collection. Wyckoff and Wagner said that it was intentional for them to include a robust mix of artists from the underrepresented communities.
Through her passion and knowledge, Davis added context and helped further forge a connection with the power that comes with representations that defy stereotypes and counter the narratives imposed on black people for simply existing.
“From the moment we arrived in this country – before it was a nation – it was an American tradition to completely exploit and oppress and subordinate African Americans in some of the worst ways that human history has ever seen,” Davis said. “It’s not surprising that a lot of African American artwork was about trying to recover the human dignity of African Americans.”
Ironically, the first the first piece of work to be discussed was controversial artist Kara Walker’s “Keys to the Coop.” The black and white silhouette features a black woman with pronounced lips and kinky hair designed to resemble racist negative imagery in the act of eating the head of a freshly decapitated chicken.
“I think it’s about undermining this idea of respect – everything that is used to stereotype black people as unattractive,” Davis said. “Part of the tradition that African American artists have tried to work with is even in ugliness, you can find profound beauty.
That is very much part of the African American tradition that your life circumstances can be appalling, but that doesn’t make you less than human. You can still find dignity and beauty.”
Davis pointed out that several black women artists – including some that are featured in “Graphic Revolution” launched a campaign against Walker when she was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” grant in the late 1990s. Those artists were successful in blocking exhibitions of Walker’s work.
“They felt that she was profoundly undermining African American art and they felt that the art market was valuing her so much because the images she was putting out were devaluing black people,” Davis said. “She helped open up the genre and helped open the range of representation that is permissible – and spark a lot of great conversation.”
As the group of ten or so walked through the Main Gallery for the remainder of the exhibit, the type of art ran the gamut. Walker’s “Keys to the Coop” gave jarring pause. Kerry James Marshall’s “Rythm Mastr: Tower of Power” elicited black pride.
He was inspired by the Marvel “Black Panther” comic strip to create his own version of an afro-futuristic comic series where the protagonist is a master drummer from Chicago.
“He’s going into museums, looking at African sculpture and taking those power figures he sees in the museum and animating them and turning them into super heroes,” Wagner said.
The African American artists “Graphic Revolution” take the viewer through past, present and future of the black experience. Glenn Ligon’s “Runaways” is a series of lithographs that are an autobiographical interpretation of the fugitive slave advertisements. “His work overall, looks at issues of race in America. But this was a very specific moment when he turned to the history of slavery,” said Wagner. Saar’s “The Fragility of Smiles (of Strangers Lost at Sea) honors the Middle Passage.
“You see this distinct group of African American artists all revisiting slavery in their work,” Davis said. “So even though it’s this institution people tell us is over, What is so marvelous about black artists is how this institution continues to inform the art but in the ways that are completely different.”
Time didn’t allow for every work by a black artist to be dissected for the group. Lorna Simpson’s “Wigs” would have surely sparked an interesting dialogue as a reflection of the contemporary work in the exhibition. But the topics that would have been talking points for “Wigs” came up during the discussion about Ellen Gallagher’s “DeLuxe.”
“What the mass media was putting forth as acceptable beauty in the African American community and beginning to deconstruct those and call out some of the things she was observing,” Davis said.
With “DeLuxe,” Gallagher builds a complex print work from advertisements found in African-American lifestyle magazines for products geared to black consumers.
“This body of work falls into when she really starts looking into the experience of black women and double subordination,” Davis said. “The other thing that I think is so profound is that so much of black culture is about advertisement and how we are depicted.
“We are the object of advertising. Even the people who dehumanize us try to sell us things – and we are also constantly used to try to sell things.”
Saint Louis Art Museum’s presentation of “Graphic Revolution: American Prints 1960 to Now” will continue through Sunday, February 3. For more information, visit www.slam.org or call (314) 721-0072.