Philadelphia

View of “Ruffneck Constructivists,” 2014. From left: Tim Portlock, Sunrise—the extended constructivists re-render, 2013; Kendell Geers, Stripped Bare, 2009; Rodney McMillian, Carpet (Office and Ollie’s Room), 2012; William Pope.L, Claim, 2002/2014.

View of “Ruffneck Constructivists,” 2014. From left: Tim Portlock, Sunrise—the extended constructivists re-render, 2013; Kendell Geers, Stripped Bare, 2009; Rodney McMillian, Carpet (Office and Ollie’s Room), 2012; William Pope.L, Claim, 2002/2014.

“Ruffneck Constructivists”

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

View of “Ruffneck Constructivists,” 2014. From left: Tim Portlock, Sunrise—the extended constructivists re-render, 2013; Kendell Geers, Stripped Bare, 2009; Rodney McMillian, Carpet (Office and Ollie’s Room), 2012; William Pope.L, Claim, 2002/2014.

The wall of reeking bologna at the entrance sets the tone for guest curator Kara Walker’s exhibition “Ruffneck Constructivists,” on view through August 17: Simply confrontational at first glance, the show hugely rewards a long, thoughtful look. In her text for the exhibition Walker describes its eleven artists as “defiant shapers of environments . . . [who] build themselves into the world one assault at a time.” The title’s clashing references to “Ruffneck”—female rapper MC Lyte’s 1993 ode to the streetwise “dude with attitude”—and the revolutionary Russian avant-garde likewise suggest a certain shock value. But as William Pope.L’s bologna wall, Claim, 2002/2014, establishes from the outset, the provocations here are polemical only through many ambiguous layers, and aggressive only in their restraint—not unlike Walker’s own work.

Walker recruited artists with a manifesto invoking Biggie Smalls, F. T. Marinetti, and architectural theorist Craig Wilkins, touching on philosophy, hip-hop, the avant-garde, and urban studies. At the ICA, viewers are welcomed by another text, by Pope.L, that begins, “When we quantify, we point with a wavering finger. . . . And of course we insist, we insist, we insist we know where we are pointing.” Reading further, viewers learn that the 688 slices of bologna pinned to the wall—each framing a tiny photo of a random local passerby—represent the 688,000 Jewish residents of Philadelphia. Besides commenting on the absurdity of arbitrarily assigning racial or cultural identity, the work foregrounds themes of surveillance and control, which find their echo in Lior Shvil’s installation/performance set Operation Oz Belev-Yam, 2011/2014, a ship-like structure equipped with video cameras, and in Deana Lawson’s found photos of a family standing before a beach-scene backdrop—at a jail, it turns out. In Lawson’s images, an incarcerated man is shown embracing a woman, holding his son, and glowering shirtless with two friends. Yet the real backdrop against which they perform this fantasy of a united family is that of state control; the painted wall suggests both an unattainable vacation and the history of slavery in the Americas.

Shvil’s structure and Dineo Seshee Bopape’s But That Is Not the Important Part of the Story, 2013—an ethereal yet industrial installation of wood, wires, fringe, string, and mirrors—feel neatly self-contained, confirming the sense that these artists are seeking more fertile contested territory than the art institution and its formalizing effects. Specifically, Walker asks: If the margin is a space of resistance because it has been defined by the center, what if those in the margin define it from within? Several works in the show feature the attributes of the urban gangster—gold chains, hoodies, tattoos, spliffs, handguns—proposing identity as a costumed performance that selectively accepts or rejects prescribed roles. In Wilkins’s thinking, urban space should be reappropriated by outsiders motivated not to become “insiders,” but to create their own reality. The show’s call to arms juxtaposes Wilkins’s “hip-hop architecture” with the Futurist manifesto: Refuse traditional monolithic identity and the modernist quest for perfection, and channel alienation into freestyle self-determination and make-do ingenuity. Accordingly, rather than dictate or essentialize, the works open up. Notably, Tim Portlock’s apocalyptic photograph Sunrise—the extended constructivists re-render, 2013; Szymon Tomsia’s photographs (from the series “Peregrination,” 2012), infused with signs of drugs, violence, and tattoo mythology; and Kahlil Joseph’s mesmerizing music video Until the Quiet Comes, 2012, renounce narrative and hover between dream and tragedy, riffing on impotence and self-determination—putting us in our place, which we are then forced to assess.

In the end, the tenuous-seeming link to Constructivism holds up. Artists like Aleksandr Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, and Aleksei Gan exposed the structure of the art object, replacing its “aura” with the poetry of wires, hardware, and raw surface in order to reflect the workings of practical, everyday socialist life. In laying bare the structure of margin and center, identity as built up and performed, and space as social and contingent, these “ruffneck constructivists” indeed aim to foment revolutionary social change.

Nell McClister