Since 1968, some of the black artists who have grown to be a few of the most consequential contemporary artists today have taken up residencies at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The painter Kerry James Marshall, who details black life on his canvases, multimedia artist Dave McKenzie, who uses performance to illuminate the black body, and Kevin Beasley, who notably makes sound sculptures from materials that signify the black experience, have all used the museum’s artist studios to create early works. In the recently mounted exhibition, Tenses, the Studio Museum presents art made by its latest artists-in-residence, who see Marshall, McKenzie, and Beasley as influences. Works of text, painting, performance, sculpture, video, and installation, by Jordan Casteel, EJ Hill, and Jibade-Khalil Huffman, represent a multitude of concerns and details future possibilities of black contemporary art.
Casteel’s paintings in the exhibition blend aspects of landscape and figurative painting to render the variously hued black men who line 125th St. during the day. This project, like 2014’s Visible Man and last year’s Brothers, is a series that visualizes hard realities. Surrounding most of the men on Casteel’s canvases are what curator Sarah Lewis, in the exhibition essay on Casteel’s art, calls, the “informal economies” that these men built as an act of survival. Glass Man Michael, for instance, sits on the street, next to glassworks he sells for a living. Glass Man Mike, as he is known in Harlem, is in front of a sign that reads in red: “HARLEM—NOT FOR—SALE FIGHT—BACK.” The scene captures the enterprising spirit of the vendors who line Harlem’s busiest thoroughfare.
“The most consistent thing has been the people I painted over the years, [who] have always been people in my community,” explains Casteel to the Creators Project. “The first body of work were nudes of actors from the school of drama at Yale, the second body were literally my family and friends from Denver.” She adds, “Getting to Harlem, I found myself really paying attention to the people I was encountering everyday on my walk from home to the museum. The way people set up environments and cohabitate on the street for such a consistent amount of time, I couldn’t ignore that space.”
There are sadder notes woven into the canvases as well. It seems, to paint proud contemporary black men is to paint some aspect of a tragedy. In James, an older gentleman in a maroon jacket and trousers with orange accents that matches his brimmed hat, has set up shop on a folding table selling CDs. James’ highly stylized entrepreneurial hustle evokes Alton Sterling, the CD seller recently killed by an Baton Rouge police officer. Even Stanley, who bares a comfortable and calm expression, wears a hoodie while sitting on atop steps, overlooking the street, opposite an Arizona Tea ad. The composition is an augury; it proposes a dreadful future possibility because Stanley fits the description that characterized Trayvon Martin’s sidewalk killing as he wore a hoodie and carried an Arizona. Stanley, Glass Man Mike, James, and many men like them are so consistently seen sitting along the street; their statures signify larger stories of Harlem and America.
EJ Hill’s installation and durational performance, A Monumental Offering of Potential Energy, is also an investigation of the black male body through the artist’s own queer subjectivity. In the second floor gallery, Hill has constructed a wooden roller coaster. Starting at the top, follow the sculpture’s twists and turns and sudden drops to the bottom of the ride, and there lies the artist on a platform, silently in a meditative-like state, during the museum’s opening hours. As the scene suggests, his body is a container representing a complete lifecycle of so many contemporary gay black males: the joys of childhood, the exuberance of coming out, and by adulthood, the exhaustion and strength gained from years of racial and sexual violence that could have resulted in death.
“Lots of things inspired this new work. So many things, I don't even know where to start,” explains Hill. “Tamir Rice's 13th birthday? The week I laid in bed because I was afraid to leave my house after some dudes made a super fucked-up comment to me post-Orlando?” He explains, “The inundation of images of black bodies lying motionless. The resilience and perseverance of black people. Our ability to have fun and find joyous moments while painfully parallel to so much tragedy. Our constant and simultaneous celebration and mourning.” Hill says, “My childhood love of roller coasters and high speeds and daring thrills and taking risks and chasing highs and pushing my body to extremes and testing my limits just to feel a little bit more alive than the rest?”
In Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s multimedia installation, the artist and poet's experiential use of language depicts the complexity of black thought and rage. The screenprint, Call and Response, collapses an oratory device used in the black church and an old preacher phrase—“Turn to your neighborhood and say neighbor!”—used for affirmation and renders them illegible. “A call and response is a living thing, a performance score, the painting a memorial of this exchange.” The muddling of the words in the painting suggests there’s friction between today’s reality and the kind of black conservatism found in storefront churches in Harlem." In his video, Stanza, a woman speaks in poetic verse about the body abstractly. She asks, “What kind of ashy ass skeletons are depicted in your version of death?”
“The entire work is informed by the very specific freedom that comes with writing and subsequently utilizing poetry as opposed to say, fiction or conventional screenwriting, which is bound usually by plot,” explains Huffman. “Poems can start in the first person and end up describing the world in a way only, say, a bird flying overhead might; poems allow you to write more plausibly from the perspective of the bird.” He adds, “All of the parts fit into this particular installation with the intended effect of creating a total kind of narrative, of video and sculpture as well as photographs and paintings that may be situated both in and outside of this specific work.”
“Tenses is meant to refer to temporality, as well as an expansiveness of language and creative expression: past, present, future,” remarks exhibition and program curator Amanda Hunt in the exhibition catalog. “Each of the artists in residence explores, in some way, the idea of impermanence or the movement of the body in space—in the studio or the city at large.” She adds, “Artists are great critics of their surroundings and of culture, and often they reflect back to us its various impacts. This year’s residency and its culminating effort, Tenses, is no exception.”
Tenses continues through October 30th at the Studio Museum in Harlem. For more information, click here.