A neon sign by Tavares Strachan inside the Smart Museum of Art read, “You belong here.” And truly on that blustery Monday night, only people dedicated to art would make the trek. The celebration of the museum’s winter openings occurred during a snowstorm that blanketed the city in white before the arrival of the record-breaking frigid temperatures. Inside the museum walls, the galleries were vibrant with new colors and bustling with people after the unveiling of two exhibitions, Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection, and Smart to the Core: Embodying The Self.
The exhibitions featured newly commissioned works from some of Chicago’s heavy hitters, including Amanda Williams, Bethany Collins, and Samuel Levi Jones, who were all formerly a part of Pamela Joyner and Alfred Giuffrida’s artist-in-residence program. Bethany Collins created a “talking bouquet” using embossed wallpaper displayed on the forty-foot-long wall in the lobby to create a conversation about the hidden meanings of state flowers, for instance, the iris from Louisiana meaning “I burn for you.” Indianapolis-based artist Samuel Levi Jones explored knowledge and power through the deconstruction of medical and law books, using the covers to create new abstract works. Williams, continuing her art-meets-architecture exploration of Chicago’s geographic racial and resource inequalities, references the practice of ‘redlining’ by filling in cracks in the tile floor with red enamel paint throughout the museum’s foyer. A striking red carpet installation piece Roll Out The Red Carpet to White Flight (They Didn’t Pitch Tents in the Open Prairie) which mimics lanes on a highway, leads to a reconfigured map created with her collaborator, author and WBEZ reporter Natalie Y. Moore. The map delineates hypothetical fair and just versions of Chicago neighborhoods, after the housing administration’s historical use of color coding systems drastically contributed to segregation and the weak distribution of resources in predominantly African American neighborhoods deemed “hazardous.” Advocating for the community is a key value in William’s work.
In addition to these newly commissioned pieces, the exhibition Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection focuses on the history of abstract art by African-American artists from the 1940s to the present and how black blackness and social change were interpreted through abstraction. The front exhibition hall is dedicated to a survey of works from two of the most important African-American figures in abstract expressionism, color field, and lyrical abstraction, Norman Lewis and Sam Gilliam. Upon entry, viewers took in the golden hues of Lewis’ piece Afternoon. The vibrant yellow, overlayed with orange, blue, and pink linework mimics a field of wildflowers under the sun’s horizon. Many of Lewis’ pieces include intricate and detailed lines and figures, some overt like those in Conversation (Two Abstract Heads) while other pieces include a playful element of small stick figurines juxtaposed alongside abstract lines like hidden messages to the viewer. Sam Gilliam’s work is more geometric and tactile. His piece, Stand, is dipped and hung out to dry with its partially bundled cloth fanning out and tie-dyed with colorful drips of paint. Gilliam’s wood works are layered with collage and show as great a depth as his paintings. During this time there wasn’t much freedom for black artists to simply create artworks in any style without somehow magnifying “blackness” as a theme or signifier. These works represent the broadening of what it meant to be an artist and not simply a black artist; in and of itself a political act.
The rest of the exhibition explores work from other African-American abstract painters and sculptors in conversation with one another. For instance, Leonardo Drew’s wooden fragments come together to create large scale installations. For instance, Number 52S grows out from the walls. Dark pieces of wood are meticulously laid inline creating a frame around a square of white wooden shims intermingled with roots gone wild and jutting out from the center of the piece. These natural elements are next to the industrial welded and knotted steel sculptures by Melvin Edwards, creating a material contrast. Edwards is a prime figure in the sculptural art world, most known for his abstract steelwork and being one of the African-American pioneers of sculpture. Shinique Smith and Kevin Beasley are another pair of artists whose use of clothing and fabric speak volumes. Smith’s work combines paint swirls, fabrics, and text on canvas, while Beasley’s work, like Untitled (Vine), a floral robe set into a molded sculptural piece. Beasley’s practice often reimagines or brings life to forgotten garments.
The most unrecognizable, recognizable piece was Glenn Ligon’s famous “America” neon signs, only this time instead of being placed on the walls, they were lying face down on the floor. The signs blinking bright white light represents the light and dark shades of America and its past. He alludes to American relations yet again in his piece, “One Black Day,” a black neon sign commemorating November 6, 2012, to honor America’s election of the first black president. Finally, the dark larger-than-life portraits of black people plucked from the imagination of London-based artist, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Her work has been a strong voice in the renaissance of the portrayal and celebration of the black figure. She was one of the few figurative artists on display amidst a sea of abstraction.
Contrasting the ideals of the first exhibition, Smart to the Core: Embodying the Self, deals specifically with modern and contemporary artists exploring the intersections of identity and art. The wall text of the exhibition reads “Who am I? Where do I fit in the social world? How do I embody and perform different aspects of my identity in everyday situations.” On the night, this room was teeming with energy as student guides held intimate micro-talks about the works in the nooks and crannies of the gallery. Because the exhibition was curated as a demonstration of the University’s goal of “expand[ing] object-centered teaching across all fields and disciplines’ in its core program there was a table dedicated to books on gender, sexuality, and race studies in the center of the room. Featured artists included Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta and images from her earth/ body artworks, Chinese artist Geng Jianyi’s photos, prints, handwritten notes and drawings, and the fascinating self-portraits of the UK artist, Gillian Wearing, who transformed her face into her mother and father with prosthetic masks. Two rows of Hank Willis Thomas’ “I Am A Man” pieces adorn a far wall, next to Carrie Mae Weem’s red daguerreotypes from her series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried. The series includes appropriated images of African American slaves from the south, one which reads “Some said you were the spitting image of evil.”
Both exhibitions provoke the viewer to think and take a closer look at the historical and cultural implications of the past and of our time, and how that drives the relationship between art and the artist, and ourselves and one another. Identity politics and societal issues lie at the core of the conversation, and whether told abstractly or explicitly, these solitary conversations, be it on the canvas or in the minds of viewers in exhibition spaces, are signifying threads of a larger story that tie us to one another in solidarity.