Kehinde Wiley, Sleep (2008)
Kehinde Wiley, Sleep (2008)

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“30 Americans” contains a lot of great artwork, but it’s not exactly a great show. This assortment of 76 works by 31 black artists—most of whom were born in the 1960s, ’70s, or ’80s—delivers big helpings of smartly turned-out spectacle and sharp, thorny content. What it doesn’t provide is a sense of history: why and how these artists came to make these works; how the works function in the art world at large; or why, aside from the color of their skin, any of these artists belong in a room together.

The show includes indelible images in all sorts of media. There’s Hank Willis Thomas’ roughly 8-foot-tall photo of a black man’s shaved head, apparently scarred by a Nike swoosh-shaped branding iron. There’s video of William Pope.L wearing a Superman costume, crawling 22 miles on his hands and knees, utterly degraded, from the Statue of Liberty to the Bronx. And there are Nick Cave’s sound suits—wild, elaborately tailored costumes in fabric, fiberglass, sequins, and metal that are equal parts high-fashion fantasy and African ceremonial garb.

Yet aside from the stellar art on view, there’s not a lot worth emulating here. In fact, given its odd genesis and thin curatorial premise, “30 Americans” really has no business looking as good as it does.

It’s not the brainchild of a museum or of professional curators, but of Mera and Don Rubell, two high-visibility collectors who buy what they like and show it however they damn well please. It comes to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in seriously trimmed down form—cut from 200-plus pieces to just 76—after being shown in the collectors’ own museum in Miami in 2008. And in a case of seriously bad timing, it arrives on the heels of the Rubells’ $6.5 million purchase last spring of Corcoran real estate. (The show was in the works before the sale.)

All of this should be especially worrying given that it’s an all-black show. It’s easy for big institutions to get race-based shows terribly wrong—even when they get them right. Then-Whitney Museum of American Art curator Thelma Golden’s 1994 show, “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” was vilified by critics on all sides. The show was deemed too populist; too obscurantist; too bland and modest in scope; too loud and prone to hot-button-pushing negativity. All anyone seemed to agree on was that it wasn’t the show he or she wanted it to be.

In a 2004 conversation with Glenn Ligon, Golden described many different hypothetical situations in which Ligon—an artist featured in “30 Americans”—would be asked to participate in a survey of contemporary black artists. Ligon expressed deep reservations: “…every five or 10 years, [a museum does] some sort of big group exhibition and they put a lot of black folks in it. But there’s not any spin-off or follow-up show from that. There are no monographic exhibitions organized by that institution of a black artist’s work, or black artists are not included in any other kind of museum programming. So the only time you get to be in that major institution’s space is in a group show—the ethnically specific group shows.”

In other words: The survey of contemporary black artists is a fig leaf that fails to cover the persistent lack of opportunities for black artists in museums nationwide.

Despite his misgivings about museums, Ligon’s work has entered the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the Whitney—which mounted a major retrospective on the artist this past February. Ligon is arguably the consummate insider, even though he continues to make work like someone on the outside looking in.

This contradiction is the true thread that unites the younger artists in “30 Americans” even more than the color of their skin: They have all exploited and mastered the codes of contemporary art. Half a century ago, narrative, figuration, and ruminations on identity—all dominant in this show—were the hallmarks of provincialism, far from the pulse of the avant-garde. Now up-to-the-minute art favors all three elements. These 31 artists suddenly find themselves positioned at the heart of a discourse that historically has marginalized them. Accordingly, many present work that is tailor-made to be seen in institutional settings, and would likely fail to function properly elsewhere.

Take, for example, Ligon’s “Stranger” series, a piece from which is included in “30 Americans.” Ligon typically uses found texts describing blackness in his work. This particular series borrows pages from James Baldwin’s 1955 essay, “Stranger in the Village,” in which the author recounts being the first black man to visit a small town in Switzerland. Local children called “Neger! Neger!” after him, and asked him why his skin color couldn’t be physically rubbed off. Baldwin felt deeply alienated in this tiny enclave of northern European whiteness—an experience presumably akin to what Ligon feels in museums.

Ligon took a roughly eight-by-six-foot canvas, stenciled a passage from Baldwin’s account onto it with thick, greasy oilstick, and bathed the results in layers of glittering black crushed coal. The result: Rows of encrusted marks move across the surface of a scorched-looking monochrome surface. Words and phrases emerge here and there, but the object looks like mineral-rich elegiac abstraction. Ligon has buried a discourse on race just beneath a cool seductive surface.

Less refined, but perhaps more poetic in its austere being, is Rodney McMillian’s “Untitled” (2005). A giant, filthy square of beige carpet fills most of one wall, while a long rectangular strip of carpeting extends out from the wall across the floor and into the viewer’s space. The piece quite literally stinks. It is self-evidently an artifact of squalor: Random spatters and stains dot the surface; rectangular areas where a sectional sofa once sat appear bleached, less subject to accumulated sole markings, dumped liquids, and general grime.

Seen in a museum, “Untitled” resembles some sort of late-’60s minimalist abstraction or process art. Its smell and patina of messy hard-luck life in the ’hood, however, keep “Untitled” from reading as purely formal. The piece could almost be seen as an allusion to the ways African art and artifact have historically found their ways into museums: first as weathered, worm-eaten objects in anthropological or ethnographic collections, then grudgingly accepted and recategorized as fine art, migrating over to departments with very different standards for conservation, description, and display—but without ever quite shaking the way in which they were first regarded by Westerners.

The quasi-abstraction of Ligon and McMillian is the exception in this show, though, not the rule. The dominant mode in “30 Americans” is representation. Kehinde Wiley, Jeff Sonhouse, and Mickalene Thomas, for example, all offer hard-edged realism with bold color and baroque textures and accents.

Wiley’s massive 11-by-25-foot painting from 2008, “Sleep,” shows a languorous, homoerotic black male semi-nude body against a field of gilt-accented flowers. It is ostensibly an attempt to inject heroic black figures into traditional European fine art figure painting. On the Corcoran’s wall, it appears fabulously overblown, grandiose, and bizarre. Yet Wiley’s painting methods have little to do with traditional centuries-old oil techniques. His image is resolutely flat and graphic. Aside from the massive scale, seeing it in reproduction is not a terribly different experience from seeing the piece in person.

Thomas’ paintings, meanwhile, reduce female bodies to single-color expanses of enamel limned in hard black lines and glittering rhinestones. Her figures come not from 17th century mannerism but from vintage pop culture and craft, and her pieces are jeweled Blaxploitation versions of the grand odalisques painted a century or more ago.

In his 2008 painting “Visually Impaired,” Sonhouse’s curious oils depict a quasi-mystical space, featuring flattened spaces, rich color, and odd collaged elements, like a coat made of burnt matchsticks all painstakingly layered in rows.

All three of these artists create show-stopping, rich, iconic images of blackness tailor-made to live on museum walls—yet all three artists find it necessary to look outside of fine art tradition for both their subjects and their techniques.

If the work itself is the greatest strength in “30 Americans,” the greatest weakness is the lack of any historical argument. Corcoran curator Sarah Newman has done her best to place artistic forebears with younger folks creating similar works. A 1981 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the famous graffiti artist-turned-freewheeling-neo-expressionist, is bookended with two 2007 found-object sculptures by Shinique Smith, who also incorporates elements of graffiti and street art in her work. Robert Colescott’s James Ensor-like paintings from the late ’80s and early ’90s, full of odd narrative vignettes and racial stereotypes, sit across the room from Kara Walker’s deeply disturbing “Camptown Ladies” (1998), in which cartoonish paper silhouettes of 19th century slaves and masters frolic in a progression of depraved acts of sex and violence.

Certainly affinities exist between the younger and older artists in these instances—but there’s no history being mapped here. The show is merely a pleasing, semi-arbitrary arrangement of fairly strong works, albeit with occasional hiccups. Why are the self-taught artist Purvis Young’s crude expressionist paintings on found wood included in this show? Oh, no reason—except perhaps because the Rubells bought an entire warehouse of his work. What does the fabulously weird, drag- and soap opera-obsessed performance and video artist Kalup Linzy have to do with this crew? It’s not entirely clear, but it’s nice to have the chance to see him in action.

Ultimately, “30 Americans” may seem to sidestep some of the tricky issues surrounding institutional ethnicity shows because it is no such animal. It is, instead, a fantastic party thrown by a couple of idiosyncratic, driven collectors. The show is in no way definitive, nor does it even offer a clear thesis. It is instead a random agglomeration of work that is otherwise underrepresented in D.C. museums. It may not be the show of black art we need, but it will have to do for now.