We recently visited Bill Hodges small gallery at 24 West 57th. For the secondary market Hodges specializes in the work of African American artists and carries widely known contemporary artists such as Glenn Ligon and Carrie Mae Weems, but also Norman Lewis and Romare Beardon. In the mid-70s Hodges became a patron of African American artists, and much has changed since then.
It was Romare Beardon who along with others in the ‘60s formed the group “Spiral” with the aim of discovering a specifically African-American aesthetic identity. While Beardon’s project could never be realized - there is too much diversity in expressive art - the project to define an African American aesthetic identity continues. In Hodges’ 2006 exhibition catalog for the artist Danny Simmons, the artist is quoted as saying, “”What does the ancestor look like? I have to see what they feel like in my head. They appear as colors to me.”* Like a shaman he brings what is unknown into the frame as colorful abstractions, and in conjuring his ancestors Simmons pushes aside the difficulties that Beardon found.
In 2007 Hodge’s gallery held its first “unauthorized” exhibition of a contemporary artist. Glenn Ligon is known for paintings in which the words of slave narratives repeat themselves in stenciled letters across the canvas from top to bottom. The use of stencils emphasizes that these are separate letters used repeatedly in a relational context to form a variety of words. Zora Neale Hurston’s words appear: “I feel most colored when I am shown against a sharp white background.” Gradually the letters thicken and overlap, becoming illegible coal. The increasing tedium and impossibility of trying to read stalls narrative identification.
For Ligon, this stalling is not meant to simply confound the viewer in relation to an “other” they can never have access to. It occurs in the writer’s experience of narrative as well. Observing the changes in Frederick Douglas’ autobiographical attempts from the first to the third version, Ligon became interested “in the idea of convention and self-invention in autobiography as it speaks to counteracting essentialist notions of black identity. The ‘one’ that I am is composed of narratives that overlap, run parallel to, and often contradict one another.”* By this account, to identify as black is to participate in and perpetuate colonialist mythology, and it is Glenn Ligon who is credited with the term “post-black,” now used with reference to a variety of artists.
At Sikkema Jenkins, a painting in Kara Walker’s series “Search for ideas supporting the Black Man as a work of Modern Art/Contemporary Painting, a death without end and an appreciation of the Creative Spirit of lynch mobs,” are the words: “An imaginary black man forced to invent the “white woman” to scream him into being. Every canvas is a blank space begging to be maimed. The paper calls the brush to break its neck.” For Walker the relations of figure and ground belong to the violent space of imagination where race is constructed. Her scissors are the cut of this imagination, each snip shaping the contours of identities against a ground. We are dictated in these works by a line that feeds reckless desire heightened by the paper-thin limits of social boundary. Decorative embellishment and flourish both normalizes brutality and stages the shock.
Despite their differences, all of these artists - Beardon, Simmons, Ligon and Walker - find a place where their personal experiences of racialized life interrupt the neutrality of the white canvas. The difference is that one of the aims of the post-black artist is not to simply enter history but to reveal and expand the very means by which that history is written and also read. Colonialism’s violence is summoned no less by postmodern accounts of identities, but here violence is acknowledged as fundamental to the signifying process itself. This occurs as the artist’s personal and objective culturally determined expression that includes the beholder, in Walker’s case occasionally distancing and objectifying her with a voice of contempt, but always engaging a subject already maimed and eviscerated by inclusion within the frame.
*As quoted in Leslie King-Hammond, "Danny Simmons - Visible Presence," exhibition catalog, Bill Hodges Gallery, 2006.
* As quoted in Kimberly Rae Connor, "To Disembark: The Slave Narrative Tradition," African American Review, V. 30 No. 1 (Spring 1996) pp. 35-57.
image credit: Glenn Ligon, Self-portait #6, 1996, silkscreen on primed canvas, 48x40", Courtesy of Bill Hodges Gallery, www.billhodgesgallery.com