30 Americans at the Frist is a massive exhibition of painting, sculpture, photography and video celebrating three decades of contemporary art by African-Americans. Easily the highlight of Nashville’s fall art season, this show demands multiple visits. I’ve only been once so far, but here are my first impressions.
With “A Bull, a Rose, a Tempest” Shinique Smith displays a bundle of clothing suspended from the gallery ceiling over a platform where a light shines upward to illuminate it. The clothes are Tupac Shakur memorabilia and the light shines on the solemn face of the late rapper adorning a black sweatshirt. The piece simultaneously speaks to America’s culture of consumer excess as well as to bales of bundled clothing that were being shipped from America to Africa when Smith made this piece in 2007.
“A Bull’” casts an ominous shadow on the wall and its impossible not to think of a lynching when you see a black man at the end of a rope. Gary Simmons “Duck, Duck, Noose” equates a children’s game with racist murder in an arrangement of wooden stools circling an overhanging noose. Each stool hosts a white, pointed hood like those worn by the Ku Klux Klan – the eyeless hoods stare at one another in mute menace and the whole scene is as absurd as it is chilling. In addition to its social commentary, the piece also provides an opportunity to consider whether there is something fundamentally different about such imagery when its handled by an African-American artist like Simmons as opposed to European-American artists like William Christenberry and Philip Guston.
Hank Willis Thomas’ “Priceless” is a massive photograph that looks like a MasterCard ad from a magazine. The slogans printed across the image are a send-up of the credit card’s famous ad campaign. They list the prices of items ranging from a 3-piece suit, to a pair of new socks to a 9 mm pistol, finally revealing that “Picking out the perfect casket for your son” is “priceless.” The image pictures an African-American family gathered for a funeral on a cold afternoon.
While the exhibition offers some unblinking examinations of the horrors of African-American history, it also offers prideful images of self-realized identity that are as full of swagger as the other images are full of sadness. Barkley Hendricks’ “Noir” is one of my favorite pieces in the show. “Noir” was painted in 1978 and the canvas features a handsome African-American man dressed to the nines in a wide collared shirt that’s open at the neck to reveal a gold medallion. His pinstriped jacket and vest fit perfectly and his pants flare at the ankle above shiny, cream-colored shoes – a gold ring and some over-sized sunglasses complete the look.
Hendricks had his first career retrospective show in 2010 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where curator Julien Robson compared portraits like “Noir” to the work of painter Alex Katz. While both artists have a penchant for portraits and a love for monochromatic backgrounds – “Noir’s” subject floats in a field of maize yellow – Hendricks’ heroes are incapable of that uncanny, Katzian flatness. Instead, the artist liberates them from the surface of the canvas. Or – perhaps more importantly – they seem to liberate themselves.
The show runs through January 12 in the Frist’s Ingram Gallery