New York

Demetrius Oliver, Till, 2003/2005, digital color photograph, 27 1/4 x 36 1/4".

Demetrius Oliver, Till, 2003/2005, digital color photograph, 27 1/4 x 36 1/4".


MOST PEOPLE will view “Frequency,” a survey of thirty-five emerging black artists, as a direct successor to the Studio Museum’s landmark 2001 group show, “Freestyle.” After all, there are numerous echoes between the two—the presiding curatorial team of Thelma Golden and Christine Y. Kim, the formats of the exhibition and its catalogue, the linguistic interplay of the titles. Golden and Kim themselves spend much of their introductory dialogue in the “Frequency” catalogue reading their current show through the previous one, particularly vis-à-vis the notion of a “post-black” artistic sensibility, the coinage Golden famously proposed to describe the curatorial approach governing her choices then, as here.

Yet for all the similarities, the Studio Museum itself seems somewhat ambivalent about explicitly linking the two shows; witness the introductory wall text, which lauds the achievements of the exhibition at the same time that it warily forecasts that “Frequency” will be “commonly misconstrued as ‘Freestyle II.’” Perhaps this coyness is simply a case of managing expectations. With a roster chock-full of major talents (including such now-familiar names as Laylah Ali, John Bankston, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Julie Mehretu, and Kori Newkirk), “Freestyle” was a watershed event—dramatically raising the artists’ profiles, burnishing Golden’s already-formidable curatorial reputation, and bringing the museum to the attention of a new generation of viewers. If “Frequency” seems hard-pressed to achieve the same results—questions of relative quality aside, the idea no longer has the benefit of novelty—this new show, like its predecessor, will go down as an important document of its moment; a consistently intriguing, if predictably uneven, barometer of practices among young artists of African descent whose work, as Golden noted of the class of 2001, remains “deeply interested . . . in redefining complex notions of blackness.”

Despite this unifying affinity, “Frequency” is as conceptually and stylistically heterogeneous as any survey of nearly three dozen young artists would (and should) be—the mix of media and approaches, on first glance, not substantively different from what one might see at any number of emerging-artist surveys, whether organized along strategic demographic lines or not. There is the expected smattering of photo-based Conceptualism, and several very fine examples of it stand out: Leslie Hewitt’s elegiac riffs on real time, 2002–2005, in which she builds a loose familial narrative by rephotographing old snapshots in quotidian domestic settings, and the memorable Cibachrome prints of Demetrius Oliver, whose vivid, performative self-portraits include one featuring the artist’s head slathered in chocolate. Entitled Till, 2003/2005, the work evokes political, social, and linguistic resonances with everything from agrarian slave labor to the infamous 1955 lynching of Emmett Till to the anticipatory posture of those who still wait for some form of historical restitution for such crimes. Promising painters figure into the mix as well. Both Jeff Sonhouse’s startling portrait Inauguration of the Solicitor, 2005, with its deft interweaving of painted and collaged elements (including a wild matchstick Afro), and the rhinestone-encrusted surfaces of Mickalene Thomas’s 2005 female-wrestling paintings, Rumble and Instant Gratification, display an almost erotic mode of material surplus. Sedrick E. Huckaby’s enormous A Love Supreme (Summer), 2003, is a lovingly rendered image of a quilt connecting family and community traditions.

If there is an unexpected area of interest among the “Frequency” artists, it is perhaps their engagement with textiles, exploiting as they do fabric’s ability to carry both individual histories and complex social meanings in its very warp and weft. Chicago-based artist Nick Cave’s extraordinary “Sound Suit” series, 2005, comprises enormous decorated costumes made from found fabrics that turn their mannequins into sequined, brocaded stellae, as if courtiers of some extraterrestrial kingdom. Working in a similar vein but a very different register are Rashawn Griffin, whose low-key Untitled (portrait), 2005, reinvents a floor bed as a kind of totem of personal history; Shinique Amie Smith, whose colossal bound block of used clothing, Bale Variant No. 0006, 2005, suggests both work and consumption; and Rodney McMillian, whose forlorn and battered chair, 2003, embodies all the psychic sag of a hard-knock life.

“Frequency” is also strong in film and video. Among the best of Golden and Kim’s choices are two that play off musical ideas: Xaviera Simmons’s Landscape: Playground (It Ain’t Hard to Tell), 2005, in which looped audio and video from a squealing summertime water-gun battle seem to morph, through repeated listenings, from chaotic cacophony into richly musical rhythm; and the deeply affecting Winter in America, 2005, by Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi, which uses skillful writing and inventive cinematography to wring real drama from the cadre of modified GI Joe–style figures the directors use to enact the story of the 2000 murder of Thomas’s cousin in a snowy Philadelphia parking lot. As the camera pulls away from a doll’s head, a tiny puddle of crimson spreading in the white fluff beneath it, the mournful strains of the Gil Scott-Heron tune for which the film is named begin to well up—a fitting coda to the work, and to the show, from a pioneering twentieth-century African-American artist who early on saw the power of art to define, and redefine, cultural notions of blackness.

Jeffrey Kastner is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

“Frequency” is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 12.