Monday, February 17, 2014

The Rubell Collection in New Orleans

With 28 Chinese in Miami and 30 Americans at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans, the Rubell Family Collection is showing its extensive holdings of art works. Miami is known for its patrons like Margulies, Cisneros, De La Cruz or Pérez who sponsored the recently opened Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). The foundation goes one step further and organizes itinerant exhibitions. The selection displayed at the CAC includes almost one hundred works from thirty African-American artists representing all styles from minimalist to expressionist, abstract to figurative and conceptual art, through paintings, videos, installations, photographs. The theme is focused on "issues of racial, sexual and historical identity in contemporary culture" and gives a  thread to the show which could otherwise lack cohesion due to its diversity and become overwhelming due to its size.

There is no beginning or end to the exhibition and I started on the top level with a work from Kara Walker depicting sexually charged scenes through her cut-paper silhouettes, facing a piece from Rodney McMillian, a carpet soiled by the remnants of daily life, stains from poverty, neglect and despair, a world away from Beuys's cocoon-like soft covers. Three photographs from Hank Willis Thomas hit a nerve. I am not surprised to read about his interest in advertising. His message is direct, short and to the point: a branded head, an athlete attempting to jump with a chain attached to his ankle, the price of a son's burial. Glenn Ligon is well represented with several works including America, 2006, and another neon work reading " I Sell the Shadow to Sustain the Substance", a famous sentence from Sojourner Truth printed on the photographs of a self-portrait she was selling to support the cause during the Civil War. The neon covered with black paint lights up the wall behind, creating a reverse effect. Ligon's works possess the powerful sobriety of minimalism. This is in contrast to the expressionistic paintings from Robert Colescott, which I realized, are outrageously funny with their historically and politically savvy humor. For the first time, I had a chance to appreciate both artists. The lonely work from Jean-Michel Basquiat unfortunately does not represent him at his best. Four sound suits from Nick Cave are standing guard, looking decorative and off subject. The photographs from Rashid Johnson need to be mentioned. They are showing a side of black African-American success, sophisticated males, dapper, proud to join the tie and pin-striped crowd. Noir, 1978, from Barkley L. Hendricks, brings us back to the tradition of portraiture with a black male, fragile in his exposed nudity. On  the first floor, a work from Leonardo Drew can be seen from the street, a massive piece of minimalist art made with (a lot of)cotton and Kehinde Wiley's African-American street heroes acquire a new powerful status in their Great Masters surroundings. We can get a taste of Kerry James Marshall with two of his works, meet Lorna Simpson represented by Wigs, 1994 or the outsider artist Purvis Young. The list goes on with Wancheti Mutu, William Pope, Carrie May Weems, Renée Green, Gary Simmons... Through different techniques and media, all contribute to the conversation.
Overall the exhibition is very busy, sometimes difficult to follow with highs and lows. Some pieces feel like they are displayed to fit the walls but the visitor can make his own choice in the collection of "many of the most important African American artists of the last three decades".
The list of African American artists who could have been selected goes on, Willie Cole, Shakaia Booker, Rashad Newsome...
How to appreciate such diversity? Known artists, less known? I remember Aristotle's quote: "The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance".
Most of the works would pass the test.

photographs were not allowed
photographs from Google images

"Triple Portrait of Charles I", 2007, Kehinde Wiley
"Pygmalion", 1987, Robert Colesscott
"America", 2008, Glenn Ligon

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