Role-play, or the taking on of another persona, can serve as a distraction and diversion to temporarily escape the confines of one’s environment, especially important in the time of Covid-19 and quarantine. Part two of this blog post takes a closer look at how works in video and photography included in 30 Americans incorporate concepts of theatricality and role-play.
Since photography’s early development in the late 1830s, and that of the moving image in the 1890s, photography and video have been used to document the world around us. Early silent films quickly became sources of entertainment, incorporating actors in story lines meant to excite and amuse. Modern photography and time-based media are produced for a range of purposes including photojournalism and documentary film, advertising, Hollywood blockbusters, as well as fine art. Artists working in photography and video often make use of the medium’s ability to communicate narratives and explore changing notions of identity in order to draw attention to social causes. The American photographer Cindy Sherman built her career on photographing herself as another character, as evident in her series Untitled Film Stills. In this body of work, Sherman drew attention to the stereotyping of women in Hollywood by casting herself in familiar roles, including career girl, housewife, and ingénue. Several of the photographs and videos in 30 Americans use the convention of role play to confront issues, including how prejudices and stereotypes based on race, gender, socio-economic status, and sexual orientation affect the perception of one’s own identity and that of others.
Rashid Johnson references the history of the United States in his portrait of a serious man in a suit and tie. The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Thurgood) is one of a series of works that capture models and friends in the guises of influential black leaders. The portraits are conceptually tied to the Harlem Renaissance’s artistic and cultural blossoming of the 1920s, including James Van Der Zee’s formal photographs of Harlem residents. “New Negro” was a term popularized during this time and referred to a growing movement of self-respect and awareness of the achievements and contributions made by African Americans. The figure represented in this work is Thurgood Marshall, who, in 1967, became the first African American Supreme Court justice. The man’s straight-faced expression and business attire evoke strength and pride in one’s history, culture, and education, while the smoky, undefined background serves to heighten an air of mystery, symbolism, and intrigue.
Trained in visual art and theater, Xaviera Simmons creates a narrative in her photographs through the use of setting, costume, and props. Simmons’s works examine how identity is formed through history, heritage, and experience. In many of her photographs, the subject’s face is hidden or covered, while other clues to identity are revealed through clothing, cultural items, or a specific landscape or environment. These works raise complex questions about the relationship of the viewer to the subject, including how cultural differences affect expectations and inform perception and understanding. The woman in American Book Covers moves through the landscape and carries a bundle over her shoulder. As she travels, she brings her history with her, just as the viewer relies on their own background to interpret the work.
Kalup Linzy’s video and performance pieces celebrate the expression of gender and sexuality through art. His videos follow in the footsteps of Andy Warhol’s avant-garde films of the 1960s, which focused on popular culture, a fascination with celebrity, and sexual freedom. As with Warhol’s films, Linzy’s videos exploit a do-it-yourself aesthetic and present an intimate look into the personal lives of a variety of eccentric characters. His series Conversations wit de Churen is a humorously melodramatic satire on the conventions of the soap opera genre. Parts IV and V follow the character Katanya, a struggling artist, as she navigates personal and professional relationships. Linzy’s practice involves writing, directing, acting, and voicing all characters. His characters do not conform to traditional gender roles, and the imperfect voice-overs, costuming, stylized gestures, and slow motion sequences add to the dramatic effect. Linzy has stated, “When things are a little off it gives a certain type of texture, a certain type of feel. It creates layers and tension. If you tell an interesting story it will make people forget about certain production values.”
Multidisciplinary artist William Pope.L works in painting, drawing, and installation, but is best known for his performance pieces, including a series of solo and group “crawls” which comment on issues of race, class, and politics. Pope.L’s video The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street, follows the artist, dressed as the familiar character of Superman, as he crawls from Staten Island to Broadway. “The Great White Way” became the nickname for the Broadway theater district after electrical lighting was installed in the late 19th century. Pope.L uses this title to refer to the theatrical Broadway, as well as to racial and economic inequality. Pope.L’s performances involve spectacle and protest, and do not shy away from evidencing the physical labor and pain endured for their production. The artist’s prone position close to the ground connotes loss of power and privilege. People on the street either ignore or laugh at him. Pope.L’s Superman cannot fly as he wears a skateboard on his back rather than a cape, and his poignant struggle to traverse the streets suggests that those people who are most often ignored, such as the homeless and disenfranchised, are the real superheroes.
—Katherine Love, Assistant Curator Contemporary Art