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IS BLACK ART TOO KITSCHY?

by Charlie Finch
 
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Right away, you might respond, "Is black, gay art too kitschy?" but I don't think that is the issue. For years and years, African-American art was ghettoized by the liberal elites as nothing but kitsch, neoprimitive sculptures, family scenes from the hood and moody dreamscapes. Even the Florida Highwaymen, those anonymous and subtle travelling black interpreters of the 1950s Florida landscape, were dismissed as kitsch.

The miracle is that African-American artists, now finally in some form of ascendancy, have mined the narrow river of ornament for a new burst of visual expression. Renee Cox was one pioneer, 20 years ago, with her superblackfemale persona, for which she was trivialized often in whiteland and imitated knowingly by Lyle Ashton Harris and Ike Ude, who led right into the throwback satirical Negritude of Kalup Linzy.

All that remained was to add decoration, over-the-top birthday cake icing from Kehinde Wiley, whose first real subtle (and in my view, by far his best) paintings of what Desmond Dekker dubbed "Israelites" are getting mixed notices at the Jewish Museum. Taking Kehinde's darkedelia in different places has been for Af-Am painters a challenge equivalent to Jackson Pollock's throwing down the gauntlet at his Ab-Ex competitors.

Mickalene Thomas broke through by using the very cheap materials of lower-class life to send up her own mother, a real tour-de-force at the time. Iona Rozeal Brown journeyed to Japan, filtering the fetishization of hip-hop by Tokyo youth through a classic Noh theater lens, thus replacing kitsch with classicism. And now, of course, Rashaad Newsome trumps everyone, even Kehinde, by amusingly obsessing on heraldry, the original kitsch engine.

The liberating function of black kitsch, as contrast, is to throw our eyes back onto the very African-American figures, fetishized by white liberals nostalgic for Jim Crow and the black beauty it created in their eyes, starkly minimal formal subjects in no need of explanation. It began with Carrie Mae Weems' scarlet slave portraits, grandmothers to the dry, splendid takes on World War II-era African-American women by Lorna Simpson, work that grows deeper with every viewing. Here, as well, Lyle Ashton Harris has broken through with his stark and loving family portraits.

The sense of Af-Am kitsch as a fundament of the new black art creative success is still that of a dream deferred: is it the candy-colored reverie of fantasy or the remembrance of suffocated beauty from the African-American past? Combining the two for this talented pioneering cohort of great artists, and all their student apostles, will scatter the dreams in favor of a new reality, no longer dependent on white patrons or liberal indulgence.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).