Mau-Mauing the Art Collectors

Black artist David McGee asks what it means to be black. And an artist.

Success may be one of the greatest puzzles for a contemporary black artist, because no matter how good the work, the artist never seems to be viewed separately from his or her race. As Houston painter David McGee strolls around the downstairs gallery of the Contemporary Art Museum, where his giant figurative oil paintings have been given the full museum treatment (including purchase for the personal collections of four museum employees), he gestures at the demonic, groveling and slightly horror-stricken face of one of his subjects. "That's what happens to you when you make a deal with the devil," says McGee dramatically. "I give the people a little something extra with the art. I'm traded on my blackness. It's a coin."

In the history of African-American artmaking, trends have run the gamut from a concerted exploration of black themes and a black aesthetic, to an eschewing of such concerns in hopes of garnering greater mainstream respect, and back again. McGee's own work began with renderings of black musicians, then moved to tropical landscapes and Jasper Johnsian abstraction, and most recently evolved to technically ambitious paintings that dwell on overtly racial concerns. Along the way, McGee learned that for artists of his generation, receiving colorblind judgment is less of a possibility than ever -- that he is not an artist, but a black artist, and that, like it or not, this fact will both work to his advantage and contribute to his isolation. That is what McGee regards as his deal with the devil.

This exhibit, "Black Comedies and Night Music," shows that preoccupation with what it means to be a black artist. In American Painter, a tribal African sculpture wields a paintbrush. In other works, a monkey stands in for the artist himself. On some levels, this mockery of people's expectations is called for. But McGee also does his fair share of meeting those expectations in earnest. He uses African masks and face paint on his subjects; he titles his work with entries from a dictionary of African-American slang. Certainly, these subjects are McGee's by right -- but his personal relationship to them is not always clear, and sometimes their use seems too easy. In Mau Mau, defined in the wall text as "a revolutionary-minded American young black person during the sixties who identified with the Mau Mau fighters of Kenya," one might expect the history lesson to shed some light on today. Instead, an African warrior has simply been taken out of time, wearing a defensive posture and a grass skirt, with nothing contemporary about him.

While McGee's subject matter sometimes seems like traditional ethnography, the paintings themselves are traditional in another way. Though their subjects are often black, they are patterned after European masterpieces by Picasso, Velazquez and van Gogh. While switching out the race and gender of models in masterpieces has been done before -- most relevantly, perhaps, by African-American artist Robert Colescott -- it's previously been done with glee and humor. Though laid over with rebellious accessories, McGee's appropriations are reverential, even dutiful. As a painter, McGee has his lazy moments -- the same subject might feature both a meticulously rendered countenance and a rather loosely impressionistic skirt -- yet he generally succeeds at creating seductive, beautiful, European-style paintings. With few exceptions, his figures are lavishly executed, given either a classic landscape background or, like inhabitants of the dark side of the moon, a haunted black wash. The bigger the canvases, the more convincingly heroic they become, and the closer McGee comes to his romantic notions of who and what an artist is supposed to be.

There is a tension in this work between this romantic, literary notion (McGee has studied the life of Picasso, and he once named a series of paintings after a poem by T.S. Eliot) and the critique of such a notion that a black artist is, in McGee's mind, supposed to provide. On one approximately eight-foot-square canvas, McGee has rendered a fair, and fairly ballsy, copy of Picasso's famous foray into African imagery, the Desmoiselles d'Avignon. In the center, he has painted the monkey, howling and holding a paintbrush of his own, like a kid who has wandered into the wrong romper room. The ostensible point, it would seem, is to topple one of the looming images of the Western canon. Only McGee seems to have gotten all crossways with his target. His energy and investment have gone into appropriating the image, not toppling it. It is clear that McGee loves Picasso. To be sure, he has titled his effort Pimps and Whores, as if to clue us in to what's really going on in modern art. But with the monkey looking more like a naughty child than a pimp, and the desmoiselles long absolved of their crimes, this stab at streetwise candor is unconvincing.

McGee paints as if he has something to prove, not something to topple. But in his exploration of African motifs, there is much that seems labored and obligatory, as if authenticity were not required in order to fulfill McGee's deal with the devil. In Corporate Girl/Side B, a woman dressed in the full skirts of a Velazquez-era princess stands at the ready, painted African designs masking her face. She wears boxing gloves. Her male counterparts -- the African warrior in Mau Mau and a youth with a painted face and headdress in Snake Baby (actually a self-portrait of McGee) -- also stand stiff and centered in their frames. All three seem as if their attire is the result not of their ancestry, but of an invitation requesting African dress.

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