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“Speaking of People”

The Studio Museum in Harlem
144 West 125th Street
November 13, 2014–March 8, 2015

Ellen Gallagher, Hare, 2013, ink, watercolor, oil, pencil, cut paper on paper, 44 4/5 × 46 3/5."

In “Speaking of People,” artists cut, collage, and repurpose Ebony and Jet—two magazines launched in the mid–twentieth century for black audiences—to draw attention to representations of race in print. In her inventive sixty-piece grid, DeLuxe, 2004–2005, Ellen Gallagher has added googly eyes, Plasticine, and paint to models’ faces in magazine ads to distort and transform the figures, as well as the promises that they advertise. Lorna Simpson further points to the fantasy of mutability inherent in such images in Riunite & Ice, 2014, a series featuring a floating female head on which she has collaged and painted different hair styles and accessories, a seriality that underscores both potential self-reinvention and the nature of the magazine as a medium.

Other artists isolate images of products advertised in these magazines, as Glenn Ligon does in his 1985 series. By pairing handpainted images of African American male hair products, such as Nu-Nile, Dax pomade, and Afro Sheen, with depictions of Giacometti and Brancusi sculptures that were shown in MoMA’s 1984 “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition, Ligon draws attention to how notions of blackness are disseminated, usurped, and remade in both high and low culture. Hank Willis Thomas also spotlights the circulation and representation of blackness in Black Is Beautiful (1953–2014), which features every woman in Jet’s “Beauty of the Week” column from the magazine’s print run, creating a compendium of changing approaches to black female beauty. Such work transforms isolated individuals into a single, monumental installation, demonstrating how print culture permeates our everyday world and serves as a material to be mined and defamiliarized by artistic intervention.

Lori Cole