Cultural Evolution in 'Freestyle'

TIMES ART CRITIC

Ayear ago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, launched a nationally touring exhibition titled "Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art." (Currently it's on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) The thesis of this savvy and absorbing show is that established multicultural ideas about Latin American identity as represented in art no longer hold. Today, a "post-Latin American art" is being forged in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and elsewhere, including regions of the United States where concentrations of artists born in Latin America live and work.

Now comes an exhibition called "Freestyle," which suggests a not dissimilar evolution evident in the recent work of many African American artists. Organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem, where it had its debut in April, the show opened Friday at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Like its forebear, "Freestyle" also offers an engaging, provocative array of painting, sculpture, video and other work from the last two years, which is proposed as embodying a conception of "post-black art."

Eric Wesley's sculpture "Mall" is emblematic. It shows a pile of studio detritus atop a rickety table. Paint cans, videocassettes, fast-food wrappers, art theory books, brushes, beer cans, a phone directory, reams of drawing paper--everything in the pile has been made by the artist from painted cardboard. Look closely at the mountain of stuff and soon you'll discover tiny little figures of men and women clustered here and there. They clamber over the giant heap of studio leftovers, gawking and pointing like tourists at Mt. Rushmore or archeologists at an exceptionally rich dig.

Wesley's painted cardboard props cleverly expand on the 1960s Pop sculpture of Claes Oldenburg, made a decade before Wesley was born, while the little white figures recall those that populate the psychologically destabilizing installations of Ilya Kabakov, the Russian artist whose celebrated work of the 1980s and 1990s chronicles Cold War repression and flights of imaginative escape.

"Mall" conveys the peculiar sense of an artist's situation in mass culture now, as his work and life are picked over by the swelling horde of curious observers, both amateur and professional. The title links the suburban world of pop consumption with the experience of being bruised and mangled--of being mauled.

"Mall" is not post-black art because it excludes issues of racial identity. On the contrary, it can't be coincidence that in the pile of Wesley's stuff the brand of beer is Carta Blanca, a can of white paint is prominent, the swarm of little gawking figures is all white and so on. Instead, the sophisticated sculpture addresses the situation of artists in the world today, as well as the situation of black artists in an art world that is largely white. Complex issues of artistic identity and racial identity commingle yet remain separate.

The show includes 64 works by 28 artists, most from New York and California. The artists are young--average age 32--and thus they matured after the civil rights movement. Like most worthwhile younger artists, the best of them evince an ambiguous love-hate relationship with the artistic generations that preceded them.

In a way, post-black art (like post-Latin American art) is fulfilling a promise that multiculturalism sought but didn't deliver. In the 1980s and early 1990s, multiculturalism worked hard at unraveling the essentialist myths of earlier generations, which claimed that certain artistic forms were inherent within different ethnic and gender communities. In the process, though, multiculturalism often seemed to get stuck on surprisingly conservative ideas of identity.

Cultural signifiers characteristic of different groups were cataloged and deconstructed, but they were also often guarded and deployed as a means of maintaining separatist social differences. By contrast, the artists in "Freestyle" typically take a richer, more ambiguous, even sometimes a playful view.

Kojo Griffin's assured drawings and John Bankston's graphic paintings both employ jaunty techniques of children's book illustration to create disturbing adult narratives. Susan Smith-Pinelo's self-portrait video, "Sometimes," focuses not on her face but on her ample cleavage, which bounces along to a Michael Jackson song in a manner that identifies the objectification of women in hip-hop culture while also insisting that, sometimes, being a sex object is fun.

Like a movie of Fred Astaire exploding into dance in a public place, Dave McKenzie's video shows the artist launching into a dance at the entrance to an all-night convenience store. The time and place gives his exuberant movements an edge of combative danger, while they yield the look of a surveillance tape to the video.

Hair, in addition to music and dance, is another familiar African American cultural signifier that's frequently encountered in the show. Nadine Robinson's wall covered with flowing black hair extensions is part Pop art masquerade and part meditative monochrome in the tradition of Rauschenberg and Reinhardt.

Mark Bradford's acrylic washes over canvases covered with permanent wave end-papers and Kori Newkirk's use of artificial hair, pony beads and perfumed pomade both put the communal, black-is-beautiful language of the beauty parlor and the barber shop to unexpected ends.

Photography in the exhibition is generally weak or conventional, but video is generally strong. In addition to McKenzie's dance, the short, abstract, erotic narratives by Clifford Owens and Rico Gaston's transformative recycling of racist scenes from the movie "King Kong," which he filters through a kaleidoscopic lens, stand out. And while the show might have been even more satisfying with more examples by half as many individuals, which would allow for these mostly unfamiliar young artists to be considered in some depth, the wide range of work on view is impressive.

None of the pieces is more impressive than the two subtle and complex sculptures by Wesley, who also left an unusually strong imprint last June in "Snapshot," the UCLA Hammer Museum's survey of younger L.A. artists. (Wesley, 28, graduated from UCLA in 1997.) His second work in "Freestyle" is quirky and mesmerizing.

Three holes appear to have been punched or kicked all the way through a white freestanding gallery wall, below waist level and seemingly at random. So far the sculpture repeats a rather conventional metaphor, familiar from such precedents as the work of Chris Burden and Liz Larner: The damage exposes the hidden structure that supports the art museum.

A few moments pass, however, before you notice something exceedingly odd: The torn and jagged shapes of all three holes are virtually identical--right down to the last detail. The contours of the holes on one side of the wall loosely suggest a map of Africa; on the other side, where they appear to have been punched through, they seem nonrepresentational.

Wesley's holes were in fact not randomly produced at all. Instead, they're the what's left in the center by sculptural casts he made of tattered drywall, which he then patched into the surrounding gallery wall. The cast, repeated three times, creates an insistent pattern.

It's a positive form whose function here is to articulate a negative space. What's missing from the established gallery structure suddenly becomes palpable--an uncanny volume of emptiness you can feel. Indeed, you take that tattered fragment of emptiness with you when you leave the museum, and it's a sense of loss not easily forgotten.

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"Freestyle," Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., (310) 586-6488, through Nov. 18. Closed Monday.

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