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.)

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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.

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"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.

Instead of worshipping reverentially at the altar of the black past, the artists go about claiming an inheritance and making themselves at home in its various rooms. This sense of history—not as edifice but bequest—holds true even when the images are deeply imbued with undertones of struggle and holiness.

Deborah Grant's multi-panel collage The Flaming Fury of Bayard Rustin the Queen at the End of the Bar makes the most direct use of the Road to Freedom archive. Grant uses images of black protest and white reaction to create a sharp-edged psychological portrait of the era. (Like a lot of psychological portraits, the series includes a telling repression. Rustin, the openly gay civil rights organizer does not appear in the series that bears his name.)

Nadine Robinson's Coronation Theme: Organon is an immense wall of speakers like one might find in a club or on flatbed truck during a parade. Cabinets are arranged to suggest the facade of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, while the speakers themselves play sermons, choirs and the sound of steadily flowing waters, which can never sound as soothing after Katrina.

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Leslie Hewitt's Riffs on Real Time suggests the quiet moments just before and after protest: family snapshots of a Christmas tree, or a day in the park substituted for Road to Freedom's imagery in order to hone in how big, collective historical memories are both distinct from and reliant on the thousands of tiny, private moments that make them up.

Probably because I've got a streak of blipsterism that puts me firmly in the "Kara Walker: Good" camp, I was most tickled by the work of Otabenga Jones & Associates and Hank Willis Thomas. The coloring book produced by Jones & Associates is part of an educational package intended for Atlanta-area kids, a canny intervention that ropes in vexing questions of access and distribution, how local communities connect (or don't) with the museums charged with serving them. (The pared-down images in the coloring book are pretty nifty, too, explicitly recalling the illustrations and posters of Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Emory Douglas.)

Thomas' Unbranded series is like a montage in a movie where the camera pans away from Road to Freedom's images of conflict in order to contemplate the magazines, posters and billboards that are part of any black community's larger media ecology. Thomas took two ads from every year between 1988 and 2008 and digitally removed all the text and products, leaving behind the underlying, contradictory depictions of black pitchmen living strange and fraught fantasy lives. Strange appendages suddenly materialize, as when O.J. Simpson grows a (proverbial?) third leg, as do color caste codes and unexpected tableaux's of sadness, violence and flight.

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All of the work in After 1968 is strong, but Jones & Associates and Thomas give the show that elusive quality of "nowness" that produces an electric thrill of connection between viewer, the work and the larger world. "Go out and grab your pen, ballot, Photoshop, paint brush, MYSQL database, whatever," the work commands. "You live in interesting times."

Gary Dauphin in a writer based in Los Angeles. He blogs at ebogjonson.com .