"30 Americans" balances nuanced and provocative
Leave it to Milwaukee Art Museum to go the extra mile.
As part of its all-year celebration of American art, MAM opened "30 Americans," a survey of African-American contemporary art drawn from the Rubell Family Collection.
Despite its name, the show, which runs through Sept. 8, features 31 artists. So, much like Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel's stack of Marshall amplifiers, this exhibition goes to 11.
The exhibition, in the museum's Baker-Rowland Galleries includes nearly 80 works – paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations and digital media – by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat and by big names in contemporary art like Nick Cave and Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon.
Rounding out the impressive group are Nina Chanel Abney, John Bankston, Mark Bradford, iona rozeal brown, Robert Colescott, Noah Davis, Leonardo Drew, Renée Green, David Hammons, Barkley L. Hendricks, Rashid Johnson,, Kalup Linzy, Kerry James Marshall, Rodney McMillian, Wangechi Mutu, William Pope.L, Gary Simmons, Xaviera Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Shinique Smith, Jeff Sonhouse, Henry Taylor, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley and Purvis Young.
"What you'll see is a survey of contemporary art, kind of the leading practicing artists in the world. You'll see all of the major trends of contemporary art: abstraction, representation, conceptual, new media, performance, etc., it's all here," says MAM curator Brady Roberts.
"You'll see a degrees of nuance and impactfulness in this show," he adds. "There's a wide range."
And that's an understatement. While viewers can read almost whatever they want into works like Cave's soundsuits and Mark Bradford's explosion of color and line on canvas, called "Whore in the Church House," there is little ambiguity in other works.
Carrie Mae Weems' "Descending the Throne," for example, with its six portraits emblazoned with text. "You became a scientific profile," reads one. "An anthropological debate," shouts another. "A negroid type," says a third.
Hank Willis Thomas' photographs – which mimic popular advertising images and slogans – and Gary Simmons' "Duck Duck Noose" installation with stools adorned with Ku Klux Klan hoods surrounding a dangling noose, are anything but ambiguous.
"The art in '30 Americans' is provocative and challenging, and will explore how our identities and histories are varied, yet we are all still Americans," says MAM's director Daniel Keegan. "This is a vastly different exhibition from anything that the museum has done in recent years.
"This is not a subtle exhibition. It will inspire discussion."
Roberts says that the Rubell family did not undertake the exhibition lightly. As collectors part of the joy of collecting is getting to know the artists, he says, and the Rubells included the artists in discussions about how the show would be shaped and presented.
"They actually spent years working with the artists who are in the show, talking about how do we do this in a way that is meaningful but not limiting, that explores something that is rich without being patronizing," Roberts says. "They dealt with a lot of issues and they listened a lot."
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is out in the Schroeder Galleria. "Wisconsin 30" features 30 African-American artists from the Badger State. The African-American Art Alliance was, in Roberts' words, "hugely helpful as we tried to tailor this (show) to Milwaukee."
The museum and the AAAA created a task force to help promote the show and tie it to the city.
"(We thought) why not feature some of our local artists," says AAAA president Sandra Robinson. "We have a lot of talent here and this might be a good time to do that. So everyone embraced that idea."
Among the artists featured are Marlon Banks, Reginald Baylor, Tyanna Buie, Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, Christopher McIntyre, Evelyn Patricia Terry and Della Wells.
Baylor is also behind the cool, swooping series of pictographs that run along Calatrava's arches in the galleria.
"The artists are young, some of them are brand new emerging, never been shown before. The youngest is 23, the oldest mid-60s," says Robinson.
"There are established artists who have been around for a while. People can actually access these artists. They can meet them, touch them, talk about their work and they're accessible price-wise. It will give people a beginning appreciation of the art that's (made) in the city."
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