Critics’ Picks

  • Steffani Jemison, Same Time, 2018, acrylic on polyester film, 24” x 20”.

    Steffani Jemison

    Iceberg Projects
    7714 N Sheridan Road
    September 16 - October 21

    In this exhibition, Steffani Jemison presents a new iteration of her ongoing research into the alternative literacies of Black Americans from slavery to the present—a legacy wherein individual actors have invented mechanisms to construct, communicate, and preserve knowledge outside white-supremacist power structures. Jemison, in fixing on moments where language has opened tiny cracks in prevailing narratives, stakes out a space of quiet possibility in which to consider the imaginative and resistant potential of words, notations, and their corresponding sounds.

    Though willfully spare in their material presentation, Jemison’s works are dense with research and references to the Black radical tradition, drawing on such figures as Omar ibn Said, the enslaved Islamic scholar who filled the walls of his North Carolina prison cell with Arabic writing. In works from Jemison’s series “Same Time,” 2016–, expressive renderings of acrylic on polyester film refer to what she calls the “private script” of hieroglyphs developed by James Hampton, an African American artist and custodian best known for having spent fourteen years in the 1950s and 1960s fashioning, out of found materials, a massive, glittering throne inspired by his religious visions. Equal parts drawing and writing, the series suggests the latent legibility of immediate, intuitive mark-making.

    Elsewhere, a large draped painting on velvet carries the slightly misspelled biblical words “unto the third and forth,” while a dissonant sound installation and two small, dense mixed-media prints on glass, WLD (turn back) and WLD (content aware), both 2018, invite manifold associations with the “word” wld (wild, world, would), which Jemison has excerpted from coded notes found in the pocket of a formerly presumed illiterate Saint Louis man, Ricky McCormick, at the time of his murder in 1999. Jemison proposes that such slippages in syntax and spelling are the keys to a broader understanding of language’s violent hold on written history, as well as perhaps a key to its undoing.

  • Carolyn Lawrence, Uphold Your Men, 1971, Screenprint on wove paper, 30 x 24”.

    “The Time Is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side, 1960–1980”

    Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago
    5550 South Greenwood Avenue
    September 13 - December 30

    In 1974, Detroit avant-jazz linchpin Phil Ranelin released the record The Time Is Now!. Appearing at the tail end of an age of urgency, Ranelin’s title echoed a string of 1960s and early 1970s albums including We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960), Sonny Rollins’s Now’s the Time (1964), and, most famously perhaps, Joe McPhee’s scorching Nation Time (1971), named after Amiri Baraka’s corybantic spoken-word poem from 1970. “Nowness” was clearly in the air back then, and it is telling that an exhibition like this one—whose title references a 1966 photograph by Darryl Cowherd rather than Ranelin’s album—should seek to regain something of that urgency in our own fractious moment. It is that time again.

    Featured here are artists, collectives, and institutions frequently overlooked by traditional art histories. The show focuses predominantly on work produced by African American artists living in Chicago’s historically Black South Side, whose most visible artists were perhaps the AfriCOBRA collective of Jeff Donaldson, Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams, among others. In its combination of abstraction and figuration, Carolyn Lawrence’s kaleidoscopic screen print Uphold Your Men, 1971, epitomizes the way AfriCOBRA’s artists fused psychedelic style with substantive social critique. Ironically, and inevitably, the best known of the sundry groups included in the exhibition—this milieu clearly privileged the common and communal over the individual—are the Chicago Imagists, a loose grouping of mostly white North Siders who showed their work at the Hyde Park Art Center. Their figurative, Surreal-ish sensibility frequently veered toward the carnivalesque. This exhibition rightly argues that this visual eccentricity was not solely the province of the Imagists but rather a vibe that exceeded the city’s racial barriers. What emerges is a fuller picture of a brash, vibrant, politically engaged, and woefully overlooked moment in postwar American art history.