New York

Adrian Piper

John Weber Gallery/Paula Cooper Gallery/Grey Art Gallery

Adrian Piper views her art as political, conceptual, activist, moral, purposeful, and necessary. She is an African-American artist-philosopher who assumes unassailable authority to confront racism and to force her audiences into enlightened submission. By exposing our culpability in the perpetuation of the cultural loop of fear, prejudice, and denial that constitutes racism, and publicly shaming us to our liberal (white) bones, Piper holds out the promise that, eventually, we will learn reflective rather than reactive behavior, will be the better for it, and presumably won’t need her policing art anymore. That’s the way it is supposed to work; why it doesn’t, would fill volumes. Perhaps it suffices to say that in order for the moral mechanism to be engaging one must be willing to accept that in the relationship between viewer and artist, the latter is always on top, knows more, and is unquestionably privileged to speak for all. If, however, the intimidation tactics and self-righteousness fail to seduce, we’re left to evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies in her art.

Piper’s three concurrent exhibitions displayed ensembles of photo-text-drawing panels from a new, ongoing series entitled “Decide Who You Are.” The visual and textual anchor of the series is a photograph of Anita Hill at age eight, over which is printed a lengthy monologic text in a voice Piper identifies as that of “the benevolent censor,” but which can also be read as a diatribe shared by accused and accuser alike. Recycled throughout the series, in tandem with the Anita Hill photo-text, is a drawingof the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-noevil monkeys, over which various texts are printed that serve as narrative analogues to photo-reproductions illustrating social themes. Establishing a contrast between the haves and have-nots, the constant images of the “self-censoring monkeys” and little Anita Hill bracket a predictable parade of stereotypical black and white success stories—children and adults, couples and families, occasional advertising imagery and copy all adumbrate the good life.

In Decide Who You Are #28: Endless Loop Record/Erase (all works 1992), a white yuppie couple poses in exuberant embrace, while in Decide Who You Are #25: How to Handle Black People: A Beginner’s Manual, a young African-American family in the front yard of their suburban home beams for the camera. In each, beneath the glossy veneer of “the way it is supposed to be” lurks the specter of “the way it really is,” establishing a comparative analysis between the culturally reinforced identities of white America and the grainy, less-than-picture-perfect assimilation of black America. The accompanying texts read like scripted, combative voice-overs to the platitudinous images. The white couple in #28, despite their cozy, carefree appearance, bicker bitterly about “self-help” literature, exposing their mutual self-hatred, while the black couple in the central panel of #25 coolly instruct their white neighbors on racial decorum: “The main thing is, try as hard as you can to be courteous and forthright at all times . . . Remember that black people know when they are being demeaned.”

Piper’s “Decide Who You Are” texts, published in book form without any illustrations, are brilliant in their mockery and anger, evincing a deep pathos about who we are, or thought we were, or want to be.“FLUXATTITUDES”Far less compelling is the ensemble format of image and text, for the trappings of political didacticism and the rationalism of conceptual art harden the suppleness of her voice into the crusading cant of campaign rhetoric. Truth is, Piper has the ability to speak eloquently about shared experience, for she both understands the depths of the racial dilemma and has the resources of expressive language fully at her command. But she seems to be her own worst enemy as well, waging holy war against her aggressors, and in so doing she mistakes friend for foe—and to make matters worse, does it in the name of art and social justice.

Jan Avgikos