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Black Is, Black Ain’t

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Black Is, Black Ain’t Exhibit at the Renaissance Society.

We are beckoned into the show with the glowing black neon letters “negro sunshine” from Glenn Ligon’s Warm Broad Glow. The space features images of the destruction of the Cabrini Green Housing Projects by Paul D’Amato, Blackface figurines of the mammy, porter, and field worker by David Levinthal and a portrait after Gerhard Richter’s Betty of 1988 as a black woman by Virginia Nimarakoh.

The exhibit at The Renaissance Society, courtesy of curator Hamza Walker and the 26 artists he has brought together for the new show Black Is, Black Ain’t, is courageous in its determination to withhold easy answers to one of the most complex, layered, and loaded issues in contemporary American life: race and “blackness.”

These artists go beyond the vestiges of “multiculturalism” to construct and deconstruct a conception of “blackness”. William Pope L.’s odd and ridiculous text based drawings, Andres Serrano’s image of a black naked woman cradling a white naked infant, and the bizarre mixed media sculpture of Sze Lin Pang sit side by side with a stark photograph of Emmet Till’s exhumed gravesite by Jason Lazerus. The title of the show Black Is, Black Ain’t comes from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.

The central inquiry of this exhibition is whether there will ever be a time when “blackness” isn’t in question. The conundrum in trying to create a platform for racial equality and moving towards “oneness” leads to a paradox. Can we ever negate race? If race is a construct that’s been handed down to us, are we only deconstructing it to create something new that will always have racial identity at its core?

The video piece of SAIC alumni Elizabeth Axtman pushes at the one dimensionality of an old Hollywood character, the tragic mulatto trying to pass as white. Axtman is both sincere and inventive in her mining of pop culture.

Performance throughout the show is very apparent, from the video work to the photography. Through performance the artist seems to directly access our stored visual language of race to help us bust open our societal illusions and myths.

The trip down to The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago is a satisfying and much needed art experience. Throughout the exhibition there’s a treasure trove of artistic expression that will lead you to your own investigations.

Details: “Black Is, Black Ain’t”
The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago
5811 S. Ellis Avenue Bergman Gallery, Cobb Hall 418 Chicago, Il 60637

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