The Studio Museum in Harlem’s ‘Fore’ takes a look at emerging black artists

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A still from Zachary Fabri's 'Chanting Black Clouds'. (Studio Museum Harlem)
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It’s easy to assume that black art is going to be about black things.

And often, in the recent past, it has been: the word “negro” in neon; black paper silhouettes of grotesque slave experiences in the American south; a French neoclassical-style portrait in which a triumphant Napoleon on a rearing horse is replaced by a black man wearing Timberlands, baggy fatigues, and a bandanna around his head.

Yet depictions like these are not the rule for young black artists, a fact that Fore, the latest in a series of emerging-artist shows that The Studio Museum in Harlem has been putting on since 2001, seems keen to pronounce. After all, The Studio Museum was founded on the notion that art by people of African descent has been overlooked. The show includes work by 29 emerging black artists, and while some address black culture head-on, others do it obliquely, but more still don’t do it at all.

“Since it's a non-thematic group show, we did not approach this exhibition with a particular theme,” assistant curator Naima J. Keith told me on the phone. “The criterion was: emerging artists who have not had any major museum attention. It’s just a moment where we could debut a number of artists we had our eye on and had something interesting to say. There is a range of media with artists from all over the country.”

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Employing such a loose curatorial approach, any similarities in artist styles emerged on their own. And the curatorial mission sought not so much to identify trends in contemporary black art practice as to find possible through-lines from prior emerging-artist shows. Fore is the fourth such exhibition presented by the Studio Museum, following Freestyle (2001), Frequency (2005–06) and Flow (2008). Not many of the works in Fore are tied to black culture or even to Harlem, a cultural touchstone for the museum, but if they happened to be, Keith felt the expressions were complicated or reoriented in some way.

“I think [Sadie Barnette] is so interesting,” Keith said, referring to Barnette’s white-painted boom box. “Obviously you recognize the boom box, but it is spray-painted white so it's not as obvious in referencing hip-hop culture ... it's not over the top.” Barnette also has a piece for which she spray-painted a cluster of soda cans.

At the six-hour open house on Sunday, hundreds of people—artists, friends, museum supporters—made their way through the show. Works in Fore encompass every conceivable media and genre: video, sculpture, found art, colors prints of found art objects, painting.

But performance was clearly central, and several of the participating artists contributed to that theatrical feel at the opening.

“Something that's unique about this show is more attention [is placed] on performance,” Keith explained. “We grouped them in that way so we could give viewers a network of performances at one time. We were thinking of ways we could engage our audience.”

Crowds gathered around such live performances. Taisha Paggett, in Decomposition of a Continuous Whole (2009–12), drew on the wall while blindfolded; rising and falling as if carrying out some sort of interpretive dance. Jacolby Satterwhite, in a piece titled Reifying Desire: Model It (2012), moved like a tumbler in a silver metallic cat suit, lying on his back with his legs in the air or flush on his belly before dramatically leaping to his feet; all in front of a two-screen video installation of him performing similar gyrations.

“What is that?” a little girl asked me, looking at a motionless Satterwhite on the ground.

“He’s going to start dancing,” I responded. When Satterwhite popped up suddenly, the little girl, utterly frightened, ran to hide behind a friend.

The audience at the open house provided another performance, if costume alone qualifies. Immaculately dressed men and women entered the gallery, each more handsome than the last. There was a veritable look-book of black hair—styles ranged from chunky braids to afros sculpted up, down, or to the side. Perfectly pressed, imaginatively styled, the scene felt like a little bit of the Harlem Renaissance regained. It seemed as if, theme or no theme, something less tangible framed all the work in the show.

“It's funny, themes emerged once the work was selected,” Keith said. “We didn't set out initially to have a certain kind of show. But, the benefit of non-thematic group show is [instead of applying a theme] it allows for these sorts of conversations to just happen.”

And if the show wasn’t in any specific or easily defined way “about” black culture, much like the crowd who came to view it, it had a lot to do with black style.

Fore is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem through Mar. 10, 2013.