The artists whose works are displayed in the "30 Americans" exhibit prove that it can be anything.
Is there such a thing as black art? Can one look at, say, the paintings of Iona Rozeal Brown, modeled after the 19th-century prints of Japanese artist Kikugawa Eizan, and immediately recognize that it's a black woman wielding the paintbrush? (Maybe once you spot the do-rags on the geishas.)
Do Renee Green's carefully categorized black-and-white movie stills, featuring the likes of Julie Andrews and Marlene Dietrich, among others, instantly signal black with a capital B? (Look again. Does it matter that there are some anonymous black folks tossed into the mix?) What's so Negro about Mark Bradford's exuberantly abstract, mixed-media collage, "Whore in the Church House"?
Is blackness, as conceptual artist Glenn Ligon once mused, something that "could happen to you, like being mugged," or are you "just black" and that's that? Or are we all "post-black" now?
These are questions provoked when taking in the massively ambitious exhibit "30 Americans," produced by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design in Washington, D.C. It's instructive that the curators have left any mention of race off the title, even though all 31 artists are black-identified. Clearly they want you to answer the question for yourself.
More than anything, this is art that grapples with issues of identity, whether it's from the abstractionist's point of view or that of the literalist. And in the grappling, the artists featured in the exhibit provoke, disturb, enlighten, inspire.
Kehinde Wiley's ginormous Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares takes the in-your-face approach to positing blackness. His work references the royal portraits of Diego Velázquez and Jean-Bernard Restout, but he takes their 17th- and 18th-century sensibilities and infuses them with a distinctly hip-hop aesthetic. His subject is a brother posing on a rearing horse, hair skimmed back in a ponytail, decked out in Nikes, zippered sweats and a red Negro League hoodie. The background is a mass of interlocking gold coats of arms; atop the gold frame is a black man's face, like a gargoyle looking in on the action. The effect is that of the black man reclaiming his dignity, taking his rightful place in the canon of art history.
There's a lot going on with the late Robert Colescott's painting, The Sphinx Speaks. Half of the painting is a swirl of bright colors and cartoonish figures. The sphinx lies beneath a rainbow sky, while naked, racially and sexually ambiguous characters grab hold of two black men, speaking to them. One sits on top of the men, leaning forward earnestly, as if in a lover's embrace. The other nude figure whispers into the oversize ear of the second man. The man smokes a cigar and has big pink lips and bug eyes -- the epitome of a minstrel-era stereotype.
The other half of Colescott's painting is a dreamy morass of red, black and white -- cartoon figures and algebra figures, a man studying hard while scantily clad women and a skeleton look on. What is the sphinx saying? Beats me. But Colescott's subversive art is breathtaking to look at.
Kara Walker's cut-paper tableaux, Compton Ladies, stretching out on a giant wall opposite Colescott's painting, is equally subversive. But where Colescott's work is all bright colors and gleeful satire, Walker's work, with its stark, black-and-white silhouettes, gets under the skin, poking and prodding. It is profoundly disturbing with its depictions of plantation life: A jockey rides a young black girl, a carrot on a stick in one hand, a whip in the other.
In another scene, a girl in too-big shoes grabs a man by the crotch, teeth bared, leaning toward his belly as if she's about to take a bite. Next to her, a woman in antebellum dress kneels, pleading as a topless woman -- a slave? -- holds a baby aloft. Two children watch the action: one in rags holds a carrot, while another child in hoop skirts and a bonnet brandishes a slingshot. Yet another woman runs from the action, naked, a carrot shoved firmly up her plump behind. Next to her, the words, "The End."
Others convey their message with quiet conviction. There is Kerry James Marshall's collage, a replica of the sign for the 16th Street Baptist church, the site of the Birmingham bombings that killed four little girls. On top of the sign rests a big bouquet of plastic funeral flowers. Below the collage is a tiny sign: "as seen on TV."
Then there's Ligon's gorgeously abstract painting, Stranger, a vertical stretch of canvas covered in glittery black coal dust, gesso and oil. Look closely, and you'll see that the coal sparkles are made up of letters, but it's impossible to read the words. It's haunting, beautiful and just beyond comprehension, a moving meditation on blackness.
"30 Americans" opens Oct. 1, 2011, and runs through Feb. 12, 2012. Check out The Root's '30 Americans' Exhibit Sneak Peek.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.