Spade & Neutered

Scottsdale's "Looking Forward" is sanitized for your protection

With the exception of one large mural by Leon Golub featuring old, haggard black women on a street, work by white artists is conspicuously absent from "Looking Forward." Pieces from David Levinthal's highly contentious Blackface Series, in which the artist created elegant close-ups of collectible racist memorabilia (now referred to as "Negrobilia"), would have been a logical choice for inclusion. And John Ahearn's eerily lifelike, painted plaster casts of South Bronx denizens, many of whom are African American, are a natural for this type of show (you can see one of them in another show at SMOCA in the room next to the "Looking Forward" exhibit).

Even the exhibition's Michael Ray Charles piece -- an eye-rolling, toothy Black Sambo topped with foliage that was specifically commissioned for the show -- merely flirts with the theme of historically stereotypical black physical representation.

For an idea of what Charles' usually pithy work is all about, you'll have to see "Face Off: Paintings by Michael Ray Charles and Jean-Michel Basquiat," currently on display at ASU Art Museum.

Jive vibe: Renée Cox's The Liberation of Lady J and U.B.
Jive vibe: Renée Cox's The Liberation of Lady J and U.B.
Michael Ray Charles' Good Night Ma'me
Michael Ray Charles' Good Night Ma'me

All of the work in this university-originated show was collected by Stéphane Janssen, an early, far-sighted patron of both Charles and Basquiat who now lives in the Valley. Luckily for the viewing public, Janssen is unafraid to embrace controversial work from which other collectors often bolt. And, thankfully, ASU, refusing to bowdlerize the disconcerting, challenging or prickly, is unafraid to show such work.

An illustration and advertising major in college, Michael Ray Charles uses imagery resurrected from old advertisements, signage and circus banners he's diligently researched, refashioning them into barbed statements about the African-American experience. There's nothing politic about Charles' paintings, which mimic distressed side-show posters or handbills and actually appear to be antique. Compare SMOCA's Charles piece with one like M. I Dun Yet? (1997) in the ASU exhibition, which features a black pickaninny, a favorite image in racist collectible circles, with a slot in its head for depositing coins. He sits in a tub of milk, its whiteness contrasting with the blackness of his skin, hoping that somehow being immersed in alabaster will make him white, with all the privileges that entails.

In Good Night Ma'me (1997), a large painting on paper that could easily pass for an old poster or billboard, Charles underscores the fear and trepidation with which blacks are still often perceived. A star mysteriously hovers over a demonic Black Sambo head crossed with bones, a new take on the old skull-and-crossbones theme. A huge money slot dissects the head like the slot in an old bank, and its brilliant red slash of a mouth resembles a slice of watermelon that transmutes into a menacing grin. The words "good night ma'me" are classic step-and-fetch-it and a play on the word "mammy," but an alternate reading might be a vengeful "I am your worst nightmare." Like others in the ASU show, it is a painting calculated to disconcert.

Perhaps being a black junkie artist exploited by the white New York art world ultimately disqualified Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Wild Child Art Star from the '80s, from being in SMOCA's "Looking Forward" show. The now mythic artist, embittered by the vagaries of a rapacious art world more interested in hard currency than aesthetics, died tragically of a drug overdose at the age of 27. Though he hardly qualifies as a poster child for positive African-American role models, Basquiat constantly wrestled with issues of racism, exploitation, power and dehumanization in his expressionistic, slash-and-burn paintings. "Face Off" contains a number of early Basquiat works, distinctive for their crudely drawn, graffiti-inspired stick figures, bafflingly coded imagery and scrawled poetic text, often scratched over or crossed out. While Charles employs careful draftsmanship and conscious layering of understated but bristly meaning, Basquiat's feverish rage, reflected in his stylistic approach, simmers directly on the surface of his canvases.

Compared to the shrill scream reverberating through the work in ASU's "Face Off," the "Looking Forward, Looking Black" exhibition at SMOCA is a muffled murmur about psychological devastation, both past and present, wrought by representation of the black body in this culture.

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