Monday, April 2, 2012

Installation and Abstraction...QUESTIONS

Edgar Arceneaux:














"What’s Black and White and Tread All Over?"
(as published on The Huffington Post 2/24/11)

One of the gifts of art is that it allows us to image ourselves into another’s experience. Last week, as I sat on the floor of the Whitney Museum of Art, pondering an installation by artist Gary Simmons titled, Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap) 1994, I was profoundly moved by the power of Simmons’ piece to evoke the African American man’s experience. A multi-layered installation of a whitewashed boxing ring, Step in the Arena stands alone in a bare room, on view in the show Singular Visions. Save for seven pairs of black wingtip tap dancing shoes, which hang from the ropes, this ring is empty. The floor, made of stretched canvas, is covered with a chalked-in diagram of footsteps, an intricate schema of the cakewalk, the dance preformed at minstrel shows during the days of slavery. A sense of absence pervades the piece: the fighters have gone, the white footsteps on the black floor are smudged and partially erased, the tap shoes have been left behind. We, the viewers—the spectators--are left on the outside, literally gazing through the ropes, with a sense of waiting. The stage is set, but empty. We are filled with both anticipation, and the haunting remembrance of past events, as if we have stumbled upon a ruined coliseum where gladiators of the past had no choice but to do battle.

However, the roped boxing ring suggests that for the African American man of today situations have not changed so much. Often compelled by disadvantage and limited choice to enter the ring, this metaphorical boxer is seduced by the promise of riches, but that promise is just another form of enslavement.

The title, Step in the Arena, referencing a song by the rap singer Gang Starr, is at once a call to arms and a warning to step into the arena—where a black man’s gift is merely flesh – and where he is owned once he steps in. Simmons’ work suggests that the arena is also about art and the marketing of the black artist’s experience once he has been “essentialized.” In this case, being essentialized means to be stripped down like a fighter, to a mere physical essence, or race-related experience, which is again an unchangeable trap, a static existence from which one can only emerge leaving ghostlike footprints behind.

In a global world that is often polarized by fixed ideologies, the risk of essentialism is the risk of reducing ourselves to just our inherent qualities. Essentialism relies on definitions by race, sex or other biological characteristics, and while these classifications are empowering, they can also be dangerous. Simmons’ point is that whether gender or ethnic-based, specifications are traps because they limit us to gross generalizations.

The hip-hop artist, businessman and author, Jay-Z when discussing his book Decoded said that the hidden mission of rap “is to find fresh angles into emotions we all share.” Thus art can serve as a revelatory doorway through which we think ourselves into another’s world. It’s an audacious ambition and one that plays out powerfully in Step in the Arena. There is great beauty in the elegance of black and white and smeared dance steps on a canvas floor, but the true force, potency
As a member of the African Diaspora, what does the installation artist have to install to be considered relevant?
and gift of this work of art lie in its transformative capacity to enable us to identify with an experience we might not have had otherwise. In the end, that’s what allows Step in The Arena to deliver its a knockout punch.
















Does the "cutting edge", post-colonial, "post Black", or broad-stroked label "contemporary" art discussion exclude abstraction? Is cultural attachment - particularly in its immediacy - a fundamental criteria for such associations? Is the clock ticking against the expressive preferences of the next Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Martin Puryear, or - dare I say it - Beauford Delaney? Has the finite gauntlet already fallen? Is the dialogue around interpretive imagery with forms that are neither concrete nor referential to the physical world in its ethnic rooted-ness dead? Where does abstraction house itself within in the art politics of the 21st century? And, why is the question pertinent? Maybe because implications of the complexities of many abstract pieces by Bill Hutson, Nannette Carter, Howardena Pindell, Richard Hunt and others remain under-discussed and therefore under-valued - contextually, culturally, and commercially, despite what may appear on the surface to be hefty attention being paid for their work...I'm just saying....BUT, more importantly, what do you think?

24 comments:

  1. I do not think that "cutting edge", post-colonial, post black art, nor contemporary art excludes abstraction. I believe that all art work, even representational, is a form of abstraction. We are not one hundred percent capturing the entirety of the subject. Even if we represent each and every strand on our subject's head perfectly, that does not make the work of art that particular person. It is an abstraction regardless. Some artwork is more abstract than others, I will admit which should not be dismissed from the conversation. Artists like Richard Hunt, whom I've done some research on, do not want someone to judge their art with a different eye due to the fact that the piece was created by a black person, or a self taught person. Those kinds of works always seem to be cast away into the "other" category, if you will. Artists can still reflect on race/gender identity without making an obvious statement, and without being representational. I do not want to say that the clock is ticking on these abstract artist, but it does seem as if having an extremely creative idea and putting in a totally abstract form does not give the artists as much shine as they deserve. Just like in Bamboozled, the masses only want to see the things that we can clearly identify as BLACK. In the movie, the more ridiculous and racist the show was, the more popular it became, the same idea applies with black artists. If it is not stated that "this work was made by a black person" in some kind of way, the piece could be over looked. But once the curator puts "so and so is a self taught African-American painter..." then the crown appears. It is unfortunately really that society operates like this.

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  3. I think that in order for art or artists to be labeled “post-colonial” or “post-black” there is an initial expectation that it be culturally attached in order to be relevant. However, this seems to reflect that these movements are still in their infancy both in their creation and reception. Perhaps there is still a need to spell out the message of the post black/post colonial artwork in a way that is more subtle or encoded within an abstract aesthetic. The artist as well as the viewer may need this explicit communication for such a complicated and tender subject. With this said, I do not think that the “finite gauntlet [has] already fallen”. Abstraction still has a very prominent position within the art of post black and post colonialism. Furthermore, the themes of these movements need to be explored in as many ways as possible, therefore reiterating a call for proper expression through abstraction. Perhaps with greater understanding of what it is post black/post colonialists are trying to accomplish and a more sophisticated and versed audience the great abstractionists of our generation will get their due credit.

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  4. These questions remind me of some of the ones that Christopher Hutchinson raised when he spoke to our class. Like he said, we tend to essentialize people and, in turn, expect certain things from them. Sometimes, we even exploit those things - and that is what I think is happening here. If postcolonial or post-black art has to fit certain essentialisms, then I don't think it is "post" anything. In other words, the suggestion that abstraction cannot refer to the diasporic experience essentializes that experience (abstraction doesn't meet "expectations"). That suggestion is also wrong, I would say, since abstraction originated in Africa. Maybe, in that sense, abstraction isn't "post-black" - but to suggest that it isn't just because something else is does not reach beyond race. It just redefines it.

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  5. This piece Step in the Arena, reminded me of the scene in Spike Lee's movie when the actor was eventually shot by the gang. When they were saying "Dance for me", but this is the modern way of that form today. I think Edgar is putting out a big issue and is expressing things that others of the black community want to say in their work.

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  6. I attended a lecture by Bridget Cooks tonight, author of "Exhibiting Blackness." At the end I posed this question to her in order to gain more insight and a different opinion. Her response to me as I understood it was that the African American art being exhibited today is that which is deemed marketable. If art is made by an African American, it better be able to be labeled, easily recognized, and sold as such. She used Kara Walker as an example saying that she is widely renowned and discussed for her disturbing black plantation figures; however, her landscapes fall into the shadows. She also noted that the black figure is exhibited more often and embraced as an acceptable black genre. My conclusion from this answer is that indeed the discussion of post-black/post-colonial art has not come all that far as much as institution's exhibiting contemporary artists is concerned. However, if there were to be a positive side of this to be found, I would say that these and other discussions being raised will help to open the door to truly appreciate the great African American artists in our presence.

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  7. I don't think "cutting edge" excludes abstraction (especially since I can't help but think of abstraction at the sound of "cutting edge") but I do think it might be undervalued and not talked about enough, probably because a lot of people who think they know about art don't really get what the art is about, so they move on to something easier to understand. I think if we avoid this type of abstraction (that speaks to us about the past), it will eventually die and the abstraction left over won't be allowed to evolve into telling stories. Abstraction now is a way of breaking down forms which can hide the truth that would otherwise be too hard to take at point blank range.

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  8. The answer I have for the first question about “what does the installation artist have to install to be considered relevant” would simply be I don’t know. What I think it is relevant might not be relevant to the next viewer. Usually when I see a piece of installation art to me it looks like someone grabbed some random objects from here and there and threw them down and called it art, which to me isn’t relevant. With the Simmons’ piece though it doesn’t seem that way, it looks like he thought out this work so in my mind I would think it would be relevant. I think the contemporary art discussion includes abstraction but I’m not too sure if it includes that many black artists. Why? I think it’s because people associate it to being a Caucasian type of art and so African American’s that practice it are just kind of pushed to the side. I don’t think the clock is ticking down on nor do I believe the gauntlet has dropped for the future of the next abstractive artists because people will continue to make abstract art. Will it be relevant and recognized at the time? Who knows? Most artists aren’t appreciated till they are dead so I figure some starving artists out there are still hammering out abstract pieces and not really caring if they are the next whom ever.

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  9. I don't think that the "cutting edge", post-colonial, "post Black", or broad-stroked label "contemporary" art discussion excludes abstraction because all art is abstract in some way or form. It is representational and we all take from it what we choose. Although I like the fact that African American artist are making pure abstract works, I don't like that their work is being marginalized in a different category of abstraction. Is it not all the same? Art is art and the color of the artist should not affect the quality or importance but sadly, that is how it goes. It is hard enough for a marginalized African American artist to make art, let alone pure abstract art without being thrown into a specific category like "self taught" "folk" "outsider artist" etc.. It's as if their abstract work isn't taken as seriously as it should be compared to other abstract works from other artists.

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  10. It's kind of a shame that abstract art was an African thing, and yet black abstract artists cannot always get the attention they deserve. I agree with some others' comments about art being marketable. Also if the art is not controversial in some way, it will not be noticed as much. People like Leonardo Drew are beginning to do art that is a bit more universal, while they keep to their roots. This to me is post-colonialism. But I am not sure that the art establishment is willing to let go of the idea that a black artist needs to be doing "black art" in order to be relevant as an artist. I think that abstract art is viable, but I don't think that black artists doing abstract art are as embraced by the art community.

    I do have to say that I was deeply moved by the Simmons piece discussed above. It is symbolic and even abstract in so many ways, and has so many different layers of meaning, without being too confrontational. But I think this is the type of art that people are expecting from black artists, not the metaphorical or symbolic abstract art done by some.

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  11. I do not believe that abstraction art is excluded from post colonialism. I think that any art that has a meaning that can be traced back to its African origins is post colonialism. Although his art work is pure abstraction,I most certainly consider artists like Gary Simmons or even Martin Puryear post-colonial."In a global world that is often polarized by fixed ideologies, the risk of essentialism is the risk of reducing ourselves to just our inherent qualities. Essentialism relies on definitions by race, sex or other biological characteristics, and while these classifications are empowering, they can also be dangerous. Simmons’ point is that whether gender or ethnic-based, specifications are traps because they limit us to gross generalizations." I absolutely agree with this statement. We cannot generalize art. It causes us to label, misjudge, and overlook a piece.

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  13. Of course abstraction plays a huge part in "Post Black Art". Any artist can relate their message of who they are and where they came from through their work, whether that work be realistic, contemporary, or abstract art. The artist merely has to transport the viewers mind through a portal, into thier own mind; giving the viewer a rare glimpse into how he or she percieves their emotions and way of life and their life experience as a whole. It doesn't matter what type of art you produce as long as you can send the right message to the viewer, then you have done your job no matter what color, gender, religion, non- religion or age you are. Sure there is always going to be haters, who will judge people by skinc olor and gender and so on, but are we all not mainly good at heart? Do we not all truley want to see something for what is really is...in it's own way of thinking, way of being, process of creation? I do.

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  14. What he showed his audience through the installation was very powerful, but you could tell he had a lot more to say than what he just displayed. He really wanted people to connect the idea that the entertainment has formed a new way to make superstars nothing but a glorified slave, especially for black stars. majority of corporations are powered behind white industries so they can get away with anything they want to because there know other race in America that has as much finical backing and power as the white race so what they say goes.

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  15. I think the discussion of abstraction like conceptual art is very relevant to this day and age and so of course to the discussion of Post-Colonialism and Post-Blackness. These pieces can be interpreted so many different ways depending on the viewer and must be approached from a certain point for reference to reach any true understanding. Abstraction is not oblsolete and is completely relevant as a form of representation. These black artists like all artists are making qualitative decisions to present their art this way, which in itself i think makes it relevant whether the discussion is race or harmony of colors and painterliness

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  16. I also attended the Bridget Cook's lecture the other night. As she discussed that how befor, African American artists had to lable their race on works, she also commented on how people read paintings differently when that is apparent today. I don't necessaraly think that it would change my own interpretation or value knowing or not knowing the race of the artist, although others today do. I believe that this type of judgement is slowly but surely fading away because of those who raise their voices like Bridget Cooks. I think that the "cutting edge", post-colonial, "post Black", and etc does not exculde abstraction. I think abstraction is a strong communication way of defining what the artist is proposing.

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  17. Contemporary post colonial art does not exclude abstraction, in turn quite the opposite. Abstraction is very much a part of modern art and "post Black" art alike. Like many comments have said, all art, whether post colonial or not, is an abstraction. Like in René Magritte piece "This is Not a Pipe," It is never truly the object, only the artist's interpretation of the subject. When one begins to think even our own various interpretations make the art abstract because every one has a different opinion on the work; If it were not abstract, everyone would universally feel the same way about the subject. I think that anything an African American artist does is considered "post Black" because they, whether they acknowledge it or intend to incorporate it or not, are decedents of African people and African abstraction. Our heritage makes us who we are, and influence us both consciously and subconsciously. All Black artists have their own personal experiences with being black and each is valuable and important in understanding themselves and the world around them. This is something that all races share, understanding ourselves and the world around us.

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  18. The question of abstraction seems to resonate with me on a more personal level because my artist, Kerry James Marshall, has spoken so extensively on the matter. Marshall regards abstraction (or at least abstraction by African American artists) with derision, pointing to it as a method for escaping the hard-hitting questions of race. He has said that, from an early moment in his career, he rejected abstraction because he saw black artists wanting to dissociate themselves from their black identity. The ubiquitous black figure in Marshall's work is basically an ardent rejection of abstraction (even if the figures themselves are abstracted in their monochromatic blackness). For Marshall, the figures make the question of blackness inextricable from the discussion of his work, which presumably, abstraction would preclude. In some ways, Marshall's perspective on the matter is much more aligned with the old guard than it is the postcolonial school. It does not seem unreasonable to assume many postcolonialists would reject Marshall because he feels the need to posit blackness at the forefront of his work. Indeed, to some extent, Marshall seems to feel the need to represent the black race in his work -- even more so than himself. Although I have infinite respect for the work of Kerry James Marshall, I disagree with him vehemently on the subject of abstraction. Perhaps he was correct in saying that some black artists of the past have exploited abstraction as a means to be accepted into the larger canon of the art world. However, in contemporary moments such as this, abstraction in the work of black artists seems to be more about embracing their individuality and not limiting themselves to the proscribed roles typically assigned to black artists. For me, there is nothing more postcolonial than the liberation that comes when one chooses to represent oneself rather than the whole. Furthermore, abstraction complicates the meaning of black art; if there is an intended social rhetoric, it cannot be so easily sussed out. It is almost analogous to the black American identity itself in that one should not ever be satisfied with one definitive definition. Like abstraction, black Americans are not monolithic -- their collective nature is constantly influx, both united and diverse.

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  20. I do not think that the "cutting edge", post-colonial, "post black", or contemporary art excludes abstraction. The piece discussed above, Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap), is a good example of an abstract piece of artwork. I really enjoyed reading about this piece and learning that the artist refers to the essentialist trap as, "being striped down like a fighter, to a mere physical essence, or race-related experience, which is again an unchangeable trap...". The word abstract has many different meanings. When people critique art, one person will see something completely different from the next person. This is because everyone abstracts their own personal ideas about art and therefore abstraction is scene in all art, including post colonial art. In the article above, I liked the idea that, "art can serve as a revelatory doorway through which we think ourselves into another's world". I think that abstraction is definitely scene in modern post colonial art work.

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  21. I do not think that "cutting edge", post-colonial, post black art, nor contemporary art excludes abstraction. Abstraction is a form of any work that the minds puts out. At least that is what I have to come to believe. I do think that this type of art is undervalued and not talked of enough. I didn't hear about abstraction until I took this class. I think that it should be discussed more in art history classes. I think in some art history classes they just throw the artist and period it is and move on. I have never had a class where we go into works in as much detail as this one and that is what makes this class stand out. Even though a work may not be the capture the entire subject matter, it is still art. I really enjoyed the boxing ring. It made me think of people's demons in life. How they have to them on nearly a everyday basis and how it can feel as though you are stuck in a ring and you almost have to fight to the death with them.

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  22. I don't believe that I would discount abstraction as being post-colonialism, nor would I say that it fits right into the definition. Abstraction has always been a broad term for a type of style, but from that word, many different styles are born. From abstract sculpture pieces, to paintings... each artist has their own particular style. But, I could definitely see and defend the argument that abstract art is post-colonial, or post-black... but it is a very debatable topic, depending on where you consider abstract art to have originated.

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  23. I feel that abstraction can never be discounted from African American Art. Abstraction is derived from African Art. Picasso collected African artifacts including masks to inspire his work. So the issue that remains with me is how African artists who work in abstraction are under-disccused when this art form is a part of their cultural history and identity. This under-discussion shows the presence of race politics surrounding the art world in the glorification of white artists over black artists.

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  24. Post colonialism and all that is rooted in post blackness can most definitely include abstraction in discussions. In a way, art is an abstraction because each individual sees and creates differently, and determining what abstract art can be credited as post colonialism can only be determined through observation aaand research. To know where an artist's ideas are stemming from has everything to do with whether or not what they are creating hints to post blackness. One has to go deeper than the surface to truly feel and understand the thoughts and processes that are cemented into the post black artists' works.

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