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O.C. ART / CATHY CURTIS : Seeing in Black and White

April 20, 1993

Warning: This art review is likely to show an insidious form of bias.

As the curator of "The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism," at the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery, Charles Gaines makes a compelling case against the ways white critics analyze work of black artists.

Gaines, an artist and faculty member at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, obviously values the work of the 11 black artists he has selected. But in this show, the art serves--alongside excerpts from critics' writings--as prime exhibits in a trial of mainstream bias.

Most of the artists--particularly Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems--can be said to have "made it" in the overwhelmingly white world of the art establishment at major art museums and art magazines. That's certainly an improvement over the bad old days, just a couple of decades ago, when black artists were overwhelmingly excluded from this world.

Yet inclusion, Gaines argues (in an essay for the forthcoming catalogue) has brought new problems, rooted in the rigid ideology of postmodernism. In the postmodern era, to be a black artist is to be scrutinized by whites primarily as "the Other," as a representative of a "marginal" culture.

Whites may praise you for presenting your ideas in an aesthetic form they find pleasing. They may criticize you for making work that seems too narrowly limited to racial issues. But They always keep the upper hand by implicitly denying the intrinsic, central importance of your subject and your identity except insofar as it relates to Their culture, which, of course, is the source of all important aesthetic trends and movements.

Just as a riverbank cannot be formed without a river to carve it out, there wouldn't be a "margin" without a "mainstream." So your work essentially has no meaning apart from the one They give it. And your personal voice (to change the metaphor) isn't heard distinctly, because Their headsets only receive the big, undifferentiated chorus of black-artists-as-a-group.

That appears to be Gaines' central argument, if I can decipher his unintelligible post-structuralist jargon, seemingly a prerequisite for being taken seriously in academic circles these days.

In the exhibition, numerous wall-mounted quotes from reviews of (and interviews with) each of the artists in the show are meant to illustrate critical shortsightedness.

Some of this material is simply appalling. A writer for Women Artists News magazine scolds light-skinned artist Adrian Piper--whose work frequently deals with white reaction to blackness--for making such a big deal about "her own obsession with race." (In fact, this type of denial on the part of whites is exactly what her work is about.)

The writer remarks that people she knows "would be . . . enchanted to discover a friend or acquaintance who had a little something exotic in her background." Exotic, indeed.

The bias in other excerpted reviews is more subtle.

Certain critics praise artists' achievements specifically in terms of the "black experience" their work appears to convey, while others limit their discussions to stereotypical issues such as the degree of "primitivism" expressed by Jean-Michel Basquiat's expressionistic paintings.

Other critical writing celebrates certain black artists whose style seems fresh and evocative--mostly because it recalls work by prominent white artists.

Brought to our attention, these tactics seem misguided, even if well-meaning. But what is the solution? Ironically, here's where Gaines' jargon (" . . . identity is deterritorialized, producing a dynamic marginality") becomes almost impenetrable.

What he seems to be proposing sounds like little more than basic good advice for art critics: Maintain a constant state of self-critical alertness, and an awareness that buzzwords such as mainstream and marginal may obscure the real issues artists are investigating.

In an Art in America magazine interview three years ago, Pat Ward Williams remarked: "Once again, it's a problem of African-Americans being effectively invisible. White people often see a color instead of a person; they think that being black is a condition rather than a racial difference."


So what about the work in this show? Well, let's look at Gary Simmons' piece "Us/Them," two white terry cloth bathrobes hanging on hooks. One is embroidered in gold with the word Us; the other, with the word Them. The reference, of course, is to kitschy His 'n' Hers accessories, but the lighthearted division between the sexes is translated into a racial division: whites/blacks.

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