Critics’ Picks

Rakeisha Mulligan, House Nigger, 2009, black-and-white photograph, 11 x 14".

Rakeisha Mulligan, House Nigger, 2009, black-and-white photograph, 11 x 14".

New York

“Expanding the Walls 2009”

The Studio Museum in Harlem
429 West 127th St
July 16–October 25, 2009

Pairing photographs by twelve young (very young!) photographers with celebrated images from the James VanDerZee archive, this show breaks down barriers both institutional and generational. At the same time, it preserves the recording of African-American culture by its own agents and subjects––something of which VanDerZee stood as a talented practitioner.

Each artist has shot a suite of four photographs, using a print by VanDerZee as his or her point of departure. Some of the resulting resonances are more strictly formal; others expressly take up a topical thread. Next to VanDerZee’s undated West End Tavern, Brandon Venable’s series of crumbling stoops and building facades appears as a principally thematic continuation. But the titles of his prints (I’m Getting Wiser and Wiser and I’m Still a Brownstown, both 2009) suggest that his subjects form something of a displaced self-portrait. Next to one of VanDerZee’s more benign portraits, Rakeisha Mulligan’s depictions of rituals of grooming and beauty offer more mordant meditations on the bodies of African-American woman. House Nigger, 2009, and Jim Crow Cream, 2009, reflect on the lengths to which women go to adapt their hair and bodies to prescribed social norms. Take the Body, Take the Mind, 2009, suggests that it is a slavishness more than corporeal: The photograph depicts two cropped, huddled knees in a bathtub, flanked by a stout bottle of bleach.

Courtney Howell’s four photographs arrest one’s attention, taking it away even from VanDerZee’s striking Portrait of a Man Wearing a Coat, 1932. Her portraits of the male body excise any individual identification. Faces are cropped, and body parts viewed from unlikely angles. The strength of Howell’s Peerless is surpassed perhaps only by Perpendicular, both 2009: a study of a young man’s arms crossed at an angle. These instances in which the show’s protagonists have transcended VanDerZee’s lessons, even as they learn from him, are exciting. Moreover, the exhibition engenders a sense of the community taking part of the museum––not simply as an inert archive but as a living facet of Harlem’s history and art history.