Attention, white America: Adrian Piper is not going to cut you any slack. In her 1988 video Cornered, Piper presents a brilliant, razor-sharp analysis of racial attitudes and preconceptions in America. She cleanly dissects everyone from the overtly prejudiced to the self-congratulatory liberal -- and all points in between. Cornered is one of the standout works in "Double Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art Since 1970" at the Contemporary Arts Museum.
Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver has taken on the difficult task of organizing a historical overview exhibition around race and a particular approach to art. Many of the works on view, like Piper's, are conceptual and deal with black issues, while others, like the hard-core conceptual, mathematically based drawings of Charles Gaines, do not. Obviously, African-American artists create a broad range of work that may or may not deal directly with black issues. The show contains conceptual works that are conceptually related to each other in that they deal with the African-American experience. At the same time, it tries to avoid perpetuating the myth that black artists only make work about black issues. In the end, the exhibition's works share two things: the race of their maker and a conceptual approach to art-making.
Cornered opens with Piper sitting at a desk. Her long dark hair is demurely pulled back and she wears a librarian-type sweater with pearls. Her race or ethnicity isn't obvious -- could she be Italian? Pakistani? Her first words, "I'm black," are the dominoes that knock over an elaborate network of extrapolations. "Now let's deal with the social fact and the fact of my stating it, together," she tells us. "Maybe you don't see why we have to deal with it together. Maybe you think this is just my problem and that I should deal with it by myself. But it's not just my problem, it is our problem. For example, it is our problem if you feel I am making an unnecessary fuss about my racial identity and you don't see why I have to announce it this way."
Slowly, her questions build on themselves, deconstructing the range of racial attitudes in America. Assumedly liberal, white gallerygoers are far from exempt from Piper's dissecting knife -- as she so deftly demonstrates, to be white in America is to have your views skewed by race. The point of the video isn't to attack or harangue; it is to instruct. Piper presents her arguments in the same measured way a professor methodically picks apart a student's reasoning to reveal the flaws. (She is a philosophy professor at Wellesley.)
Appropriately enough, the monitor Piper uses in Cornered is placed in a corner of the gallery. An upturned table leans up against it like a barricade, rows of chairs set in front of it, and birth certificates issued to Piper's father hang on the wall on either side of the monitor. One certificate identifies his race as white; the other labels him "octoroon." Toward the end of the video, Piper informs viewers that researchers have shown that the majority of all Americans have between 5 and 20 percent black ancestry. And in America, to be part black is to be black. She asks us: Now that you know this, what are you going to do about it? According to some accounts, at one of the video's showings, the calmly delivered work provoked one man to throw a chair and declare that no one could force him to be black.
In many of Piper's early-1970s performance works, she pushed social boundaries. She soaked her clothes with foul-smelling concoctions and rode the subway at rush hour; she walked around with wet paint smeared on her clothes; she walked through a museum blowing bubbles with gum stuck to her face. The performances rejected society's injunctions to be "nice," "behave" and "make people like you."
This same willingness to push the envelope and explore the alienated and the abject informs William Pope.L's work. Videos of his performances are also on view. For Eating the Wall Street Journal (2000), he sat on a toilet atop a high platform wearing a jock strap, reading the Wall Street Journal and swigging down pieces of it with a gallon of milk. It's the kind of work that shocks and revolts people, but that's part of the point.
Pope.L has also staged an ongoing series of public crawls. The CAMH show presents footage from Pope.L's belly crawl down the length of Broadway, The Great White Way: 22 Miles, 5 Years, 1 Street. In earlier works, Pope.L wore a business suit. But for this 2002 post-9/11 piece, Pope.L wore a Superman costume, making his performance even more tragic and ironic. As he drags himself down the grubby city sidewalks, his tattered and grubby Superman costume, with fake pecs, operates as a striking visual metaphor for New York's 9/11 aftermath. Pope.L pushes himself to physical and emotional extremes, making himself pitiful and abject. He finds the dirty, icky, hateful things in our society and embraces them to call attention to their existence.
There are other strong video works in the show. In Rebirth of a Nation (2004), Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. D.J. Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, pairs his electronic music with footage from D.W. Griffith's iconically racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Downstairs, Howardena Pindell's Free, White, and 21 (1980) alternates painful autobiographical stories of racism with the patronizing responses of a white woman played by Pindell.
Houston artists have some impressive works in the show. Bert Long's vibrantly colored ice sculptures are spectacular and enshrined in their own enormous glass-walled freezer. Karen Oliver's 2003 work Bench (seating for one), in which a tiny little metal shelf/seat projects from a massive brick wall, is a study in loneliness and isolation. David McGee's watercolors tellingly combine portraits of hip-hop figures with the names of Dadaist artists. And Robert Pruitt spoofs white corporate pretension and exploitation by displaying a series of clocks set to time zones labeled Watts, Detroit, Haiti, Nyandarua
Race as an organizing principle for art exhibitions remains problematic. But "Double Consciousness" has brought together some strong and provocative pieces. The best thing the viewer can do is focus on the individual works themselves.
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