Cut evokes power, submission, loss and sensuality.
Cut evokes power, submission, loss and sensuality.
Courtesy of CAMH

The Right Footage in "Remixed & Reloaded"

If you want to see all the work in "Remixed & Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image Since 1970" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, you'd better pack a lunch. With almost 50 video works in the show, projected in separate rooms or presented on monitors, there are almost enough hours of footage to fill an entire workday. But nobody says you have to watch it all at once, and there is some amazing work in this show. Even if you can only hit the highlights, it's definitely worth the trip.

The show, co-organized by CAMH curator Valerie Cassel Oliver and Dr. Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, spans generations and includes everything from Cornered, Adrian Piper's iconic 1988 video installation about race, to Big Gurl, a 2006 Barbie-filled stop-motion animation tour de force work by the young Houston artist Lauren Kelley.

Cornered has been shown in Houston before, at Rice Gallery in 1995 and at the CAMH in the 2005 show "Double Consciousness" [see "'Double' Vision," March 3, 2005]. If you missed it before, you really should see it this time. The centerpiece of the installation is Piper, a woman with dark hair and an olive complexion speaking to you on a video monitor. She is demurely clad in a blue jewel-neck sweater adorned with a simple strand of pearls. You aren't quite sure of her race or ethnicity until she speaks and calmly states, "I'm black." Like the philosophy professor that she is, Piper patiently dissects the meaning of that statement in contemporary America as she explores the viewer's possible responses to it and the reasons behind them. It's a brilliant and illuminating exercise in logic that demonstrates the inescapability of race in America, even for people who, like Stephen Colbert, claim that they "don't see race."

Howardena Pindell's 1980 video Free, White and 21 is another great early work that was also in the 2005 CAMH show. In it, Pindell matter-of-factly relates stories of discrimination from her life that are all the more disturbing because Pindell did everything "right." If you read her bio, you discover that she graduated with honors from Boston University and received her MFA from Yale. It still didn't make people treat her as an equal. In the video, she dons a blond wig and appears as a white woman, accusing herself of being ungrateful and paranoid. Like Piper, she deftly anticipates and skewers a white viewer response.

Lauren Kelley represents a new generation of artists. Her video Big Gurl debuted at Lawndale Art Center [see "Girl Art," September 21, 2006]. Kelley uses goofy stop-motion animation and a host of modified Barbiesque dolls to tell stories about women's lives that blend humor with poignancy. She has a knack for characters and a keen eye for social details, tackling everyone from career women to chicken-shack employees to jerky guys. Her evocative sets are gloriously homemade and fabulously inventive, created from crap like tin foil and cardboard.

Tracy Moffat scavenged film history to produce her 1999 video Lip. It's a series of film clips of black women portraying maids in film. In the original films, they are presented as accessories to white women. There is everyone from Mammy in Gone with the Wind, played by Hattie McDaniel (the first black woman to be nominated for and to win an Oscar), to Tillie, the maid in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? played by Isabel Sanford. Talented black actresses may have been relegated to maid roles, but by excising scenes in which the women playing the "help" speak up and steal the show, Moffat manages to simultaneously showcase their talent while highlighting Hollywood's underuse of it.

Elizabeth Axtman takes on Hollywood as well. With the camera close in on her face, she lip-synchs lines from films about fair-skinned black characters, like the one in the 1934 film Imitation of Life. "I'm not black! I won't be black!" a character cries. Axtman, who is the daughter of an "Afro-Panamanian mother and a German American father," refers to these monologues as "tragic mulatto rants." She strings them all together, performing and showcasing their one-dimensional melodrama, in which skin color is the sole obsession.

Other artists take on skin color using the blackface of minstrel shows. Xaviera Simmons heightens its absurdity by coating herself with black while lying on the beach sunbathing next to a white woman in Landscape: Beach (density) (2005). Meanwhile, in Maren Hassinger's video Daily Mask (2004), she ritualistically draws mask-like patterns on her face until it is completely obscured and blackened; the artist almost becomes invisible under the visual weight of her mask.

South African artist Berni Searle has a similarly ritualistic approach in her work Snow White (2001). Her video installation shows the artist from a frontal and an overhead angle, as she sits on her knees naked, in a pose that seems more ceremonial than submissive. Flour rains down from the ceiling, slowly coating the artist with a thick layer of white dust. Brushing it off, she pushes the flour into a pile and begins to knead it with water that rains down from the ceiling. In this beautifully meditative work, the artist slowly, methodically and skillfully works the flour into a dough, transforming and creating. There is something hypnotically calm and maternal about the act.

The show is filled with other powerfully evocative works. In María Magdalena ­Campos-Pons's video History of a People Who Were Not Heroes (1994), a haunting Cuban lullaby is sung while a sheet-draped rocking chair moves back and forth. Old photographs of people and places are projected onto the sheet in ghostly images; the lullaby becomes a lament.

In Cut, a video by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, the artists, a couple, cut each other's hair with a straight razor. McCallum is white and Tarry is black, and the seemingly straightforward mutual act evokes power, submission, loss and sensuality. The sound of the razor sawing through hair creates a palpable tension.

A screening room presents around two hours of video on its own. Unfortunately, every time I went in, the only thing I saw was Camille Billop's 26-minute 1987 documentary Older Women and Love. The 20-year-old film comes across as dated and quaint as it tries to present relationships between older women and younger men. No doubt there are stronger offerings, but the room seems like a catchall for works the organizers didn't want to leave out.

A whole show of video is tremendously difficult to present in a gallery environment. Audio is a problem; the works shown in their own rooms fare well, but when pieces are grouped in an open room, many of them become impossible to understand. Even seating becomes an issue. Stark, aesthetically unobtrusive wooden benches are okay for brief videos, but sitting down to watch lengthy offerings shouldn't feel like an act of penance, as it did in the screening room. How 'bout some couches, people?

Video is a powerful medium, but it's a medium that requires a level of commitment from the viewer. One study found that museum viewers, on average, spend less that 30 seconds viewing an artwork, so presenting this much video is a tough task. But expand your attention span, and your patience will be rewarded. Showing up with a lawnchair and a snack isn't a bad idea either.


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