That post-racial society we were all supposed to be enjoying by now remains elusive, which makes “To Be Black in White America,” opening Saturday at Galerie Myrtis, all the more powerful.
The show, part of the Artscape Gallery Network, offers a timely commentary as much on old days as the here and now, and it does so in ways subtle and confrontational, poetic and emotional.
"We wanted to do an exhibit about race, politics and history," says Aden Weisel, director of Galerie Myrtis. "We have included works by a lot of artists we represent, and placed them with works by other great, insightful artists."
There's something provocative and multilayered on every wall, starting with Wesley Clark's "Open Season" (2014-2016), a series of 100 individual squares made out of acrylic, latex and plywood. Common to each of the pieces is a target practice motif.
Stamped onto the edges of the squares are stark stats — initials of an African American killed by police or, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, by someone assuming the role of a law enforcer; age and date of death; the state where the death occurred. The message about feeling like a target couldn't be clearer. But Clark's way of painting each square in distinct, nuanced colors also draws attention to the individual personalities that have been lost.
Trayvon Martin also haunts Nehemiah Dixon III's "Suits of Armor" series (2013-2015). The artist dips hoodies in black epoxy resin and shapes them to look as if they still hold bodies. He envisions expanding the project greatly, ending up with ghostly torsos that can be displayed like the army of terra cotta soldiers from the mausoleum of China's first emperor. I hope Dixon gets to realize that concept.
Jeffrey Kent's 2004 acrylic-and-oil titled "Punks? (Colored Boys)" presents cartoon-like outlines of three men who could be gang members; one guy holds what could be a gun. But this trio also sports halos above their heads, which adds a new layer to the image. So does the spelling of "Punks?" backward on the canvas. Social values, education, crime and prejudice all converge.
Kent's "Can't Touch This," a vintage water fountain with a jar covering the spout, conjures up the Jim Crow era in a freshly stinging way. Same for Stephen Towns' 2014 painting "I Wish It Were That Easy," the portrait of a proud woman with an "I Voted Today" sticker on one arm. In the background, an American flag and a noose.
The Towns piece is placed opposite Wayson R. Jones' "Black President" (2012), an abstract portrait on canvas incorporating powdered graphite, acrylic medium and gesso that seems to bristle with conflict, internal and external. Jones uses the same materials in another conflicted portrait image painted a year later titled "Crying Out" — and adds another.
"The artist incorporates salt," Weisel says, "so it's like the painting literally contains the tears of mothers who have lost children to violence."
The exhibit includes a pair of video pieces created in 2012 by Larry Cook, one of the finalists for this year's Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize.
The videos, part of Cook's entry when he was a 2013 Sondheim finalist, make an eerie pair. On one, silent footage of Martin Luther King Jr. looking uncomfortable in a TV studio; on the other, an unsettling bling-trumps-King statement, with music video-like footage of black men cavorting in a flashy custom car as a distorted remix of the "I Have a Dream" speech is heard.
Among the exhibit's many other strong works: Oletha DeVane's 2015 installation, "Henry 'Box' Brown," vividly honoring the slave who shipped himself in a crate from Virginia to Pennsylvania; and Linda Day Clark's "North Avenue No. 24" (1993), which packs a lot about race and perception into one bright photo of a smiling African American girl holding a blond, blue-eyed Barbie doll that she enhanced with whole new look.