Steven Beyer

Steven Beyer’s “Babies” embody a richly layered visual dialogue on the politics of sex, race, and religion. In this installation, Beyer presented six bronze putti—three black and three white. These works are part of a series of ten in which five distinct gestures are realized in both black and white finishes. The extremely formal and exaggeratedly elegant presentation is ultimately ironic, as it serves to establish conventions that the artist questions and undermines. These putti constitute a sharp departure from the Western traditions from which they are drawn, as they all have African-American features. To further confound matters, half of the black babies are painted white, and most are dressed in baby clothes fabricated at the Workshop. The cloth of the christening gown worn by two of the figures bears a printed red pattern after an 18th-century French toile called “Sacrifice of Love.” Beyer takes advantage of the printing process to adjust some of these curiously domestic courting scenes, in which children are frequently included, making the sexual innuendos more overt. Words discreetly engraved on the palms, feet, and backs of the babies, such as “Promise” and “Finitude,” offer a verbal text that echoes the images, while their names (after wildflowers) supply additional resonances.

In the strongest piece in this installation, entitled Smilax, 1990, the cherub, wearing a christening gown, hangs on top of a dramatically draped drop cloth. His hands are poised by his shoulders in an uncertain gesture as he gazes down at the “Sacrifice of Love” scenes on his garment. To his right, the cloth is pulled back in a theatrical swoop, revealing a large letter D and a red floral pattern printed on layers of cotton sateen and silk georgette. D is for “Division.” On small pieces of paper pinned behind the sheer fabric are the words “Negritude,” “Redemption,” and “Division.” The layers of information in which these babies float accumulate like experience itself, the weight of which challenges the sense of possibility they initially suggest.

Eileen Neff