High on Art

In a new Atlanta exhibit, contemporary black artists are finally having their say.

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After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy

High Museum of Art

June 7–October 5, 2008

Contemporary art isn't everyone's cup of tea, but, if there was ever a moment when museum-grade contemporary images for/by/about black people could have particular crossover appeal, this would be it. Many of the headlines from this increasingly chaotic and exciting election cycle could have been lifted from a stupendously unsubtle performance project based on images, fantasies and fears about a black POTUS. Call it "uppity" or "Nigger, Naz and Nuts." (If you think these are exaggerations, you obviously missed exhibition The Assassination of Barack Obama.)

There is no sign of the so-called hope at an excellent show now on view in Atlanta's High Museum of Art, After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy. All the same, the artists in After 1968 offer a number of different takes on the central question of Obama's candidacy: "Okay; now what?"

After 1968 is on display at the High along with a new survey of civil rights photography called Road to Freedom: Photographs from the Civil Rights Movement, 1956–1968. (Both shows, packaged together as "History Remixed" are on view until October 2008.) Road to Freedom displays hundreds of iconic civil rights photographs from the High's permanent collection. Using supplementary materials like maps, posters, magazines and official documents like Rosa Parks' fingerprint paper work, it sheds new light on photography's value as both documentation and a tactical tool for shaping public sentiment.

Road to Freedom is worthy in its own right, but, if you're old enough, you've likely already worshipped, found strength and grieved in this church before. The six artists in After 1968—Leslie Hewitt, the Otabenga Jones & Associates collective, Adam Pendleton, Jefferson Pinder, Nadine Robinson and Hank Willis Thomas—were invited by High Museum curator Jeffery Grove to remix the images in Road to Freedom. The results have all that glorious diversity and nagging ambiguity that crops up whenever we think about our recent history.

"Ambiguity," (like the prefix "post" and the word "ironic") is a pretty overused word when talking about this generation of artists, and After 1968 is not a singularly post-wry experience a la Kara Walker's recent retrospective. Irony is just one arrow in the group's quiver, along with anger, loneliness, humor, beauty, introspection, and rocket ships.

Only two of the artists—Otabenga Jones & Associates and Hank Willis Thomas—bring anything that evokes Walker's stylized provocations. Jones & Associates created a cheerful agit-prop black history coloring book, while Thomas deconstructs period print ads targeting black consumers. Adam Pendleton's painterly abstraction Black Dada uses no specific imagery at all, asking onlookers to ruminate on literal fields of black paint.

Jefferson Pinder's video works riff on various meanings of "white." In one video, black men or women silently lip-synch to Johnny Cash and David Bowie (white men in black and glitter), while in another video, Pinder applies white make-up and projects images from the Civil Rights Era and Apollo moon launches on his own face, '60s optimism becoming literally skin deep.

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