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It didn’t even occur to me that there might be a white artist in “Next Generation.” Everything about the pitch for the show, the first for Contemporary Wing, suggested it would feature only black artists—to me, anyway. For the show, gallery founder Lauren Gentile asked participants in “30 Americans,” the show of black artists on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, to nominate some younger names whose work they admire.
So when, at the preview for the pop-up show’s opening at 1250 9th Street NW, I was introduced to the decidedly white Gary Pennock, my eyebrows popped. Wasn’t “Next Generation” supposed to be a sort of baton passing, from highly visible black artists to younger unknown black artists? And yet Shinique Smith, an abstract artist who appears in the “30 Americans” exhibit, picked Pennock, presumably, because his video work is extravagant and delicate: For one piece, Pennock projects variegated light onto (and through, and off) a case that has a glass, crystalline formation—a sculpture that both casts a shadow and serves as a prism.
It’s easier to talk about light than it is to talk about skin color when it comes to art. In this case, however, the verdict almost renders itself. With the inclusion of white artists, the bottom of the show falls out. It may be for all the right reasons.
Consider the original Corcoran show: “30 Americans” is drawn from the collection of Miami-based art collectors (and now D.C. developers) Don and Mera Rubell. Critics don’t smile on these collector-sweetheart shows; there’s no scholarship to them, no novel curation, and such shows may be organized to curry favor with collectors who may one day want to donate their works. (Not the Rubells, though; they have their own museum.) Nevertheless, the value of showing “30 Americans” in D.C. can’t be overstated: Black contemporary artists almost never get a showing on the National Mall. To simply see the Corcoran step up and engage black audiences with its (rather ambitious) programming related to “30 Americans” is validation enough.
That’s what made Gentile’s challenge so intriguing. (The gallery’s permanent address on 14th Street NW isn’t open yet, hence the pop-up setting.) She asked the established black artists from the Rubells’ collection to curate their own show, the presumption here seemingly that they would ID the next generation of black artists. Only not all of them stuck with the spirit of the question—making “Next Generation” something of a debate. Nick Cave nominated Cheryl Pope, a white artist (and studio assistant) who, in other shows, has made basketball tournament banners that read “I Am African American” and “I Am Black.” For this exhibit, her work draws on forensic body outlines, gold chains, basketballs, shackles—perhaps things that white people superficially associate with black experience, but which specifically detail from her conversations with black Chicago youths. Fair enough: “Next Generation” is a more democratic show than even the no-label “30 Americans.”
In any democracy, the good comes with the bad. Wyatt Gallery’s utterly photojournalistic photographs from Haiti are strikingly colonial—images of nobility in the face of suffering that are out of place in a show that is otherwise dominated by pop sculpture. Caitlin Cherry’s uproariously funny works read like Dana Schutz paintings, but with slapstick comedy in place of feminist undercurrent. That isn’t a bad thing, because they are that funny: In the show’s standout piece, Disney Movies Taught Me To Cry (2011), Cherry mounts an oil painting on a metal pole and surrounds the base with colored rubber balls. Alex Ernst’s admittedly handsome minimalist found sculptures date from a previous generation. But David Huffman’s abstractions are extremely forward-looking. (His painting, Collard Green, is pictured.) They’re comical up close—one of his favored marks is a cartoon basketball, which he paints across all his canvases like little stickers—but taken as a whole, his paintings are severe, serious looks at composition and color.
In the end, “Next Generation” is just another group show—and on the whole, a good one. Would that post-racial harmony were so close at hand. In reality, when the show comes down, it will be some time before so many black artists exhibit again in D.C. Maybe years. Until the day arrives when artists of color, women artists, LGBT artists, and other underrepresented artists have actual access to the National Mall, it’s incumbent upon progressive galleries to carve out space to show their work. Maybe—if there’s justice in the world—the next generation will get there.
“Next Generation” is on view at 1250 9th Street NW to March 10.