New York

“The Magic City”

Brent Sikkema

CURATOR TREVOR SCHOONMAKER titled his six-artist show “The Magic City” after jazz pioneer Sun Ra's 1965 album, which in turn was named for the sobriquet that Ra's hometown, Birmingham, Alabama, has seen fit to bestow on itself. While the work assembled here is on the whole too refined to bear comparison with the eccentric visionary force of Sun Ra's Afrofuturist aesthetic, it does have a Ra-like affinity for fantasy, eclecticism, and humor—unusual qualities in work that addresses the fraught issues of race and power in America.

Barkley L. Hendricks's life-size portraits argue eloquently for the fantasy and dignity in his urban subjects' self-stylings. The regal superfly type in Noir, 1978, presides over the exhibition from the wall opposite the entrance. His gaze is met by the watchful, slightly anxious look of the woman in Latin from Manhattan, 1980. Roberto Visani's sculptures of guns in a sense literalize the psychic armor visible in the faces and fashion of Hendricks's city dwellers. Visani's Fly Free Buffalo Soldier, 2000, is a kind of arte povera rifle constructed of brass tubing, lace, bells, tinfoil, upholstery tacks, feathers, and horn. The title and materials (such as traditional West African cowrie shells) point to the history-laden nature of the artist's project. Although Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu shares an interest in the history of colonialism, she works in a somewhat starker, more enigmatic register. Her Clepsydra, 2000, a bottle suspended mouth down from a stainless-steel brace, drips an indigo solution onto the floor, as if to inaugurate a ceremony fusing western antisepsis and African ritual. Tim Evans's paintings take cultural collisions into the more frenzied territory of digital media. Looking like a cross between David Salle and Japanimation, Evans's Tengu Limbonics, 2000, includes dazzling layers of images drawn from porn, cartoons, sumo wrestling, and martial arts. In Rina Banerjee's dynamic unpacking of orientalist fantasy, I Dream of Genie, 2000, part sculpture, part installation, an open suitcase in an upper comer of the gallery spills a stuffed serpentine form that spirals down through a web of yellow saran wrap to a small pillow on a kind of pedestal, which sits amid an arrangement of shredded orange foam on the floor.

Tony Gray's small works on paper deserve special mention for their trenchancy and economy of means. In his “Panthers” series, 1998–99, figures drawn on pages from history books and old textbooks float like transhistorical spirits through scenes from revolutions past. With their cartoony Afros, shades, and turtlenecks, the pair in Panthers, 1999, is comical—imagine a Black Panther Beavis and Butt-head—yet curiously dignified. They hover in the foreground of a reproduction of a painting depicting British troops surrendering at Yorktown. While this is a revisionist intervention, the farcical form in which the Panthers appear complicates the critique by suggesting that these more recent revolutionaries have already themselves become caricatures. The painted and collaged works from Gray's “Black Fairy” series, 1999–2000, each portray a different winged black woman wearing a tutu-like dress, standing beside a tree, and holding the stem of a giant flower in one hand, while in the background small, featureless brown figures look on. Gray's depiction of black women as ultrafeminine forest sprites amounts to a quiet polemic about the ways in which blackness has been ghettoized.

In the end, “The Magic City” seems an apt rubric for such disparate work, concerned as all of it is with themes of Africa, diaspora, and cultural cross-pollination, as well as the magical webs that cultural migration weaves. This is art that strives to be as strange and interesting as the fact that Sun Ra was from Birmingham.

Thad Ziolowski