One of the greatest advantages of being white in America is having the luxury of not thinking about race all the time. It should come as no surprise that so many Americans do think about race and its attendant issues a great deal. Civil rights leaders may make uplifting speeches or stage protests that incite citizens to action. Though comedians can often highlight controversial stereotypes in a way that unites rather than offends, those who bring up difficult events in our history, or point out the racial component of current situations in the news, can be seen as strident or tiresome, or even as political panderers.
When circumstances arise that suddenly make one acutely aware of the significance of race in everyday life, the experience can be overwhelming. The art of self-taught artist Andre Leon Gray tends to have that effect, and he handles this sensitive subject with honesty, brutal candor, and a healthy dose of good humor in his Artspace exhibit, entitled circumventing the pigment. In this manner, Gray manages to get beyond the issues some only wish to avoid.
The works in this show vary between assemblage and installation, and are staged and exhibited skillfully around the busy lobby area. The entrance is dominated by the faux-classical "Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and Subjugated," for which Gray appropriates some art history for a rewrite. The work features columns adorned with nail-studded black baby dolls flanking a modern Nike, whose tattered, outstretched wings recall the battle as well as the victory. Her chains and other adornments describe a warrior goddess, and in the dirt below her, toy soldiers pose in frozen standoff near a bound-shut history book. Installation can be a challenging form, but here it is richly detailed and refined. In this piece and throughout this show, Gray employs flat black paint as a unifying design element and as a not-so-subtle, but highly effective reminder of the subject at hand.
Gray's careful attention to detail gives strong support for all his pieces. His drawings and paintings display technical skills often found lacking in artists with years of formal training, and his assemblages are solidly constructed. Images, icons and objects are carefully chosen and thoughtfully combined, often with refreshing simplicity. One such work, "Profilin' (fig. 341)," places some all-too-familiar racist images in their proper context. The carefully executed drawings of stereotypical heads--the "classical," the "negro" and the "chimp"--are displayed beside drawings of their corresponding skulls on a child's chalkboard. The bigoted ideas to which the piece refers seem antiquated, but are relatively recent from a historical perspective. An eraser sits poised to swipe them away, but they remain, symbols as outdated as the washboard on which they are mounted. Although drained of much of their power, they are not gone, and certainly not forgotten.
While it is sometimes a difficult trudge down memory lane to contemplate these works, there is an implied hope and healing in confronting them and putting them aside, in moving on. Gray employs a familiar vocabulary of objects which repeat throughout the show: dried twigs with their tufts of cotton still attached, antique glass bottles, shells, playing cards, pawns and spades--innocuous items which take on more serious meaning in this context.
All are present in the somewhat disturbing "Mad Scientist Pruning Family Trees," a sinister experiment which includes Petri dishes inoculated with virulent images of race and culture. "['Mad Scientist'] addresses the racist perception of the black mind and body as inferior to whites, and how this led to the Tuskegee government study from 1932 to 1972 that exploited more than 400 black sharecroppers and day laborers to observe the effects of untreated syphilis," explains Gray. "From the prejudices of Western medicine and science, to today's popular images of black culture, the perception of the 'other' still taints race relations and psychologically has long-lasting effects on the hue-man family."
The images included in this case are pop-culture icons--generally viewed as harmless--alongside the references to slavery and experimentation on human subjects. Do we accept stereotypes such as the "thug" rapper or the hypersexualized pop diva even as we reject the minstrel or the mammy? Gray is apparently willing to take on much more than the past, and he's just getting warmed up.
"Who Got Game (Catch 23)" addresses the very touchy subject of the so-called education of college athletes. Also displayed on a large chalkboard, Gray's illustrations and schoolteacher printing are instructional and witty. A small wooden ladder leads up to the board, but the rungs are clogged with basketballs. It's a simple lesson: giving out an athletic scholarship is not equal to providing an education. In "The Jig Is Up," it is the current administration's turn to take a beating. A large, black-on-black painting of President Bush looms in the stairwell, but dangling from chains he sports wildly grinning racist dolls marked "Sis Condi" and "Brer Colin." It isn't entirely clear who is chained to whom, though--a valid question.
The installation piece "Ol' Southern Theory of Relativity" incorporates the familiar cotton sprigs, tiny wooden crosses and cards in a strange vignette. A checked, gingham-lined basket sits atop a small wooden table whose four legs are planted on the painted image of a Confederate flag. On the box's opened lid are scrawled the words "origin of picnic." Inside the box are chef and mammy salt-and-pepper shakers, antique food tins, and a black-painted apple. There is more to the piece, but it falls short of the others--perhaps by diluting its message with too many elements thrown together.
Although often serious and sometimes scathing, Gray's works are generally positive in spite of the subjects and his frank treatment of them. If there is an unabashedly optimistic piece in the show, it is "Linda Brown Tips the Scale." The reverence for the subject is apparent in its presentation in a glass case like the ones used for the display of precious mementos. It includes some text from the 14th Amendment outlining the rights of U.S. citizens, brightly printed cloth, and some lesser ephemera (shells, cotton, a child's block). The famous date, May 17, 1954, is displayed prominently, and the legal and social significance of the historic court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education is given its due. What dominates the piece, though, is the absolutely shining countenance of little Linda Brown herself, whose delight and triumph completely lack self-consciousness. It is no wonder that her image carries such power, because it validates the struggles of so many who came before.
The overall success of this body of work foretells a bright future for Andre Leon Gray. He has received well-deserved awards and attention in the last few years, and has expanded the scope of his influence all over North Carolina. He recently attracted the attention of New York art critic Eleanor Heartney, and will soon be seen all over the Southeast in the touring exhibition Thresholds: Expressions of Art and Spiritual Life. Let each new success allow Gray to expand the scope of his work, along with his reputation. He has brought warmth and sincerity to some contentious ideas, and should flourish as long as he continues to challenge himself.
circumventing the pigment runs through May 29 at Artspace, 201 E. Davie Street, Raleigh. 821-2787 or
www.artspacenc.org . Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.; First Fridays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.