New York

Kori Newkirk

The Studio Museum in Harlem

“No one can make a better Kori Newkirk about Kori Newkirk than Kori Newkirk.” So the artist says in an interview with Thelma Golden published in the catalogue of the Studio Museum Harlem’s current survey of the artist’s work since 1997. Following his participation in the 2001 Studio Museum exhibition “Freestyle,” Newkirk was hailed as a key “post-black” artist. The term, while vaguely defined, was coined by Golden in reference to a stylistically diffuse grouping of artists who shared a desire to avoid alignment with stereotypical presumptions about black subjectivity.

In Newkirk’s case, this drive has manifested itself in a materially diverse spectrum of work; the exhibition includes photographs, videos, assemblages, site-specific installations, neon sculptures, mixed-media paintings, and his signature curtains fabricated with strands of pony beads strung onto horizontal armatures. The artist hit on the idea of using pony beads in the late ’90s, when Venus Williams was dominating the tennis world and upending the sport’s fashion formalities by dangling the beads from her braids. His strategy in these works—to push signifiers associated with race into defiantly personal realms—is one that informs everything he would move on to after his first bead piece, Jubilee, 1999.

While Jubilee shows an abstract, pixelated field of fire made from candy-colored beads (which he has linked to the Los Angeles riots of 1992), the majority of Newkirk’s curtains are representational, often depicting pastoral scenes of what resembles the American Northeast. Although born in the Bronx and now based in Los Angeles, the artist split time in his youth between New York and a rural, predominantly white northern part of the state. It is in works such as Suspect, 2001–2002, or NASA, 2007—both beaded curtains depicting woodsy landscapes—that he most adeptly fuses urban object with rural iconography.

Those works of Newkirk’s that take whiteness as their subject—especially those from 2003—toy with questions around that identity, probing its entanglement with invisibility and threat. Works like Groton, 2003—in which the jaws of a white rubber shark latch onto the protruding ray of a snowflake ornament—or neon sculptures in the shape of snowflakes (Belvue Gardens, 2003) or icicles (Maybury, 2003) situate whiteness as paradoxically beckoning and threatening, an alluring predator. The gorgeous Tully, 2003, is a mandala of shark silhouettes carved into the wall and filled with pale blue wax; the aggregate shark swarm forms the shape of a snowflake. Two of nature’s great white threats are conflated and camouflaged by luster. Newkirk constantly flirts with Minimalism, and, like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, he empties it of industrial toughness, ushering it into the realm of the seductively ethereal.

In photographs and videos made since 2004, it is largely Newkirk’s own body that constitutes his material. In a group of photos from 2004, he wears the standard shirt and tie of an office worker and poses belly-up and facedown in a sunny green meadow. In the video Titan, 2007, he staggers nude through an ink-black dungeon, his stiff frame dragging skeletal, upright armatures decked out with neon tubing. In comparison to works like Regina at 33, 2000, an unassuming and simultaneously caustic, nostalgic, and raw “installation” of pomade smeared in a corner of the museum’s ceiling, Newkirk’s videos and photos feel contrived, perhaps a bit obvious in their incongruities. When Newkirk is at his best, he manipulates materials that function not to trumpet grandiose generalities about the state of race in America but to reveal quiet, thoughtful specificities about the state of Kori Newkirk.

Nick Stillman