New York

“Interrogating Identity”

Grey Art Gallery

Opening up artistic and scholarly canons, raising consciousness about the existence of others, celebrating multiculturalism (as opposed to the homogenizing “melting pot”)—such are the hallmarks of currently politically correct writing, grant giving, art-making, and other activities involving the processing of culture. “Interrogating Identity,” which focused on the work of “Black” artists (used here, in the British sense, to apply to non-Caucasians of various ethnic backgrounds), pandered to this trend while shedding little new light on the complex of related issues.

The work exhibited consisted largely of last-gasp reiterations of strategies overworked in the ’80s—media imagery and cultural icons paired with found or invented texts in combinations that allegedly deconstruct or subvert accepted ideologies and oppressive stereotypes. The use of graphic and textual languages drawn from white-male-imperialist productions such as advertising, the mass media, and the tourist industry to speak of the Other poses problems that only one artist —Glenn Ligon—confronted directly. He pointed out the impossibility of describing “Black” experience in “White” language. Moreover, the strategies employed, which are commonly disseminated through institutions such as art schools and universities that are primarily controlled by white males, are themselves products of late imperialist culture. Indeed, one wonders how black—how outside—anyone exposed to such an entrenched educational process really is.

But powerful art can be erected on dubious foundations, and the main problem with the work shown here was that few artists transcended appropriated theoretical formulas to create innovative work or to interrogate critically the morass of cultural and political issues that racial tensions beg. Roshini Kempadoo’s de- and reconstruction of pages from the black women’s magazine Essence begins with the admirable intent of countering the neatly packaged versions of femininity proffered by this magazine with a messier, more fragmented, and more realistic depiction of the self. But the resulting compositions, in which quotes from female writers replace the boldface blurbs typically accompanying picture-perfect images, end up packaging these spirited words in much the same way that the original magazine condenses nuggets of advice for its reader/consumers. Yinka Shonibare’s unresolved mixings and matchings of Chinese calligraphy, ad logos, African figurines, and appliances—intended to break down cultural hierarchies and categorizations of all sorts—in the end, say nothing about anything. Instead, they replace attempts at sense making (however myopic) with conceptual chaos.

Much of the work also seemed removed from lived experience; many of the artists draw on parents’ or ancestors’ lives and cultures though they are themselves already assimilated into Western society. One exception is the work of Ingrid Pollard, whose photodocumentary series explores her personal experiences as a black woman in England in ways that resonate for anyone who has experienced social or cultural alienation in any form or context. In Pastoral Interlude, 1986, Pollard wanders “lonely as a black face in a sea of white” through the Lake District, commenting on her feelings of discomfort in rural settings—blacks having become associated exclusively with urban environments—while ironically paraphrasing the (white male) Romantic poets whose writings constituted the cultural flowering of 19th-century (imperialist) Britain. In The Cost of the English Landscape, 1989, Pollard juxtaposes texts from tourist brochures with photographs of endangered environments, revealing the high price of imperialist “civilization” and, by analogy, the devastating human toll of the racial exploitation underlying such social systems.

Is the dichotomy between the enfranchised and disenfranchised at issue here productively considered? Self-abasing collusion with oppressive authorities or its alternative—knee-jerk complicity with those of one’s own ethnic or racial group—are not real-life responses; most people find themselves playing multiple roles, and it is surprising that artists caught in the interstices between such groupings fail to examine the ensuing moral dilemmas. Certain works do engage such ambiguities; Ligon’s text panels quoting descriptions of suspects in the Central Park jogger rape trial question the ethical positions of all involved, from the suspects and their lawyers to community figures called in as character witnesses. Keith Piper’s univalent depiction of black bodies as victims of economic and social exploitation, on the other hand, rehearses a simplistic good guys/bad guys scenario. Oddly, one of the show’s simplest works is one of the most profound; Gary Simmons’ bath towels embroidered with the words “Us” and “Them” oppose but also equate insiders and outsiders, oppressors and oppressed, suggesting that the abuse of power decried throughout this exhibition is not limited to specific races.

Lois E. Nesbitt