Visual Arts

Spade & Neutered

Little Black Sambo, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben -- all that's missing from this classic cast of racist stereotypes is a lawn jockey at the front door of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

No, SMOCA is not hosting a Ku Klux Klan convention or a twisted Antiques Roadshow episode. It's just the current venue for "Looking Forward, Looking Black," a traveling art exhibition with historical overtones by primarily African-American artists. Some of the high-profile black artists included have made distinctive, albeit much debated, marks on the contemporary art world by harnessing or reworking politically incorrect imagery to slice open raw racist images and caricatures that have been force-fed to the public by advertising and mass media over the years.

Not the typical fare dished up by SMOCA, "Looking Forward" could have been a potentially provocative show. The operative word here is "potentially" since, sadly, "Looking Forward" coyly promises more than it delivers.

According to its curator, Jo Anna Isaak, this show is supposed to deal with "the vicissitudes of representation of the black body over the century -- examining what it feels like to be in that body as well as how that body appears. . . ." By scrutinizing work that uses images and metaphors created by a predominantly white culture, the curator apparently wants viewers to grasp the prejudice that produced these demeaning symbols, and the cultural identity crisis it has created for African Americans, a laudable goal by any standard.

Unfortunately, Isaak hedges on too much of the work in "Looking Forward," and falls short of the goal of cracking the tomb and letting the stench of racist sentiment escape into the ether. She's selected a number of wan and watered-down works that are mere shadows of the truly potent stuff for which included artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Robert Colescott and Michael Ray Charles are justly famous. Whether this is entirely Isaak's fault or SMOCA had something to do with diluting the original show is anyone's guess.

For example, Brotherhood, Crossroads and Etc. Two (1994) by black homosexual artist Lyle Ashton Harris, appears full-page in the exhibition catalogue, but is nowhere in sight in the exhibition. That piece, a 20-by-24-inch Polaroid, features two young, nude black men (the artist and his gay brother) kissing at gunpoint. Apparently too hot for the desert, Brotherhood seems to have been swapped out for a less inflammatory Harris work, The American Triptych (1997-98). These sensual black-and-white photographic images capture the artist in draggy white face and straight blond wig appearing in a dream sequence with a black female nude. But they have none of the unsettling, confrontational quality of Brotherhood.

And instead of something from Carrie Mae Weems' scathing Ain't Jokin' Series, in which Weems uses mortifying jokes about black stereotypes (including references to fried chicken and watermelon), we get work from her Sea Island Series. The three chosen images are staid, plainly historical photographs taken directly from anthropological daguerreotypes of black slaves photographed in 1850 by their South Carolina owner. They are devoid of the well-placed punch Weems ordinarily delivers.

Who knows? Maybe SMOCA got jumpy after that Brooklyn Museum of Art brouhaha in November, during which Mayor Rudy Giuliani caused a public-funding stink over a show of British contemporary work being shown there. Giuliani was particularly incensed about a dung-dolloped painting of a black Virgin Mary, set off with decorative naked body parts, by British-African artist Chris Ofili. SMOCA must have figured that if work like that isn't playing well in New York City, anything remotely thought-provoking certainly won't be warmly received in predominantly white Scottsdale.

In any event, the tone of the exhibition is a polite, predigested beige. There are few spots of bright color, vitriol and humor in an otherwise milquetoast assortment. Besides several well-crafted paintings by Beverly McIver dealing with the taboo of interracial intimacy, two Renée Cox photographic pieces can be counted among the few standouts. In Hott-en-Tot Venus (1994), the artist appears nude, huge fake breasts and a bulbous faux behind strapped over her own, as she glowers balefully.

Cox makes us squirm with her reference to Saartije Baartman, the original Hottentot Venus, a small black woman of the Khoikhoi or Hottentot tribe lured from southern Africa to England in 1810 by an enterprising Englishman who promised her fame and fortune. Once there she was exhibited naked, often locked in a cage, as a side-show freak because of her inordinately large breasts and butt, traits apparently very common in women of this particular tribe. Even in death she was violated, her genitalia being dissected and preserved for posterity (they still reside with the Musée de L'homme in Paris, though recently the South African government has lobbied for their return). Cox reminds the viewer of the contemptuous fascination with which the original Hottentot Venus was observed by the public, examining yet another stereotype of how black women are physically perceived in this culture.

Cox's The Liberation of Lady J and U.B. (1998) also recasts Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben of food package fame as sexy superheroes being freed from their old, benign images. Strangely enough, the new characters emerging from the familiar labels appear more akin to actors from a '70s blaxploitation movie -- yet another insulting, formulaic racial convention of recent Hollywood vintage.

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.

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.