This two-part blog post takes a closer look at selected works included in HoMA’s current exhibition “30 Americans”, through the lens of theatrical performance and role play.
Whether witnessing a performance in a theater or visiting a museum or gallery exhibition, the audience plays a vital role in the critical understanding and interpretation of a work of art. The visual and performing arts have shared a long and rich history of mutual inspiration and collaboration. Modern and contemporary artists, including Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, and David Hockney, have designed stage sets for ballet, modern dance, and opera (as seen in Hockney’s design for Maurice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, in HoMA’s collection). Nineteenth century European and American artists, such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Mary Cassatt, painted works that focused on the social atmosphere of the theater as a place to see and be seen. Contemporary Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s sublime images of theaters document entire films and performances in one glowing image. Many artists use tools closely associated with performance, including sets, costumes, props, and theatrical lighting, in the creation of their work. This post will examine several pieces included in 30 Americans which share commonalities with the theater, including the notion of role-play, in the creation of dynamic and meaningful works of art.
Theatrical performances generally rely on costuming as one of the key elements used to tell a story. From an early age, the desire to “play dress up” is one that is widely shared, and that interest in taking on another character or persona continues into adulthood. Currently enjoying a surge in popularity are social media challenges, such as #GettyMuseumChallenge, where the participants use clothing and props to recreate famous works of art. Kehinde Wiley’s paintings similarly recall the poses and backgrounds of European paintings from periods such as the Italian Renaissance and the French Rococo. The referenced historical works take as their subject the aristocracy, and incorporate grand settings such as figures on horseback or expansive landscapes. Wiley replaces the aristocratic subjects with contemporary black figures, painting them with remarkable realism, dressed in modern street wear and surrounded by lushly detailed environments. Wiley’s Triple Portrait of Charles I, after Flemish Baroque artist Anthony van Dyck’s painting of Charles I of England (c. 1635), features the same man in three different views. The positioning of the subject echoes that of mug shots taken by the police. Wiley’s paintings work to insert the black subject into spaces historically reserved for the European ruling class, thereby disrupting expectations and bringing awareness to the ongoing lack of diversity and inclusion in art museums, extending throughout history and into the present.
Individuals take on a variety of shifting roles in daily life depending on who one interacts with at a given time, whether they be colleagues, friends, or family. Mickalene Thomas explores the freedom of transformative role-play in paintings such as Hotter than July, and she heightens the dramatic effect through the incorporation of multiple elements of artifice and performance. Thomas’s models inhabit elaborately fabricated sets decorated with patterns and textures influenced by the artist’s childhood in the 1970s. Her subject plays to the audience, exuding a commanding sense of self-assuredness through the frontal positioning of her body and her outwardly directed gaze. In this work, both the subject and the object are equally alluring. Rhinestones set into the surface of the painting underscore the craft involved and position the work as an object to be admired.
Nick Cave’s Soundsuits also incorporate highly decorated and embellished surfaces. Cave’s three sculptural works included in HoMA’s presentation feature sequins, synthetic hair, metal flowers, and colorful crocheted and brocaded fabrics. Cave’s Soundsuits were conceptualized as a response to the 1992 Rodney King beating and resulting Los Angeles riots. Cave created the suits as a form of protection and camouflage that would hide gender, race, and class—distinctions that have historically been used to stereotype and oppress. The suits’ design offers protection for the wearer, while vibrant patterns and ornamental details draw on traditions of cultural celebration. The pointed headpieces invoke hoods worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and Cave’s repurposing and reimagining of this problematic form strips it of its power to intimidate. Cave was trained as a dancer, and his suits also function as costumes to be worn during performances. When utilized in this manner, the fantastical suits produce a variety of sounds, further confusing any presupposed categories or divisions.
Lorna Simpson’s Wigs (Portfolio) directly engages concepts of theatricality and role-play and explores how perception of identity is closely intertwined with outward appearance. Wigs are commonly used in and out of the theater as a way of temporarily altering appearance. This multi-panel piece features many styles of wigs from different historical periods, including doll hair and body pieces for men. The array of wigs suggests that the viewer select one, and therefore construct a persona or narrative around who might wear a certain piece, and under what circumstances. Interspersed within the piece are text panels relating to how attitudes toward others are closely associated with appearance. Simpson’s photographs and collages have long investigated how viewers respond to an image when facial identification is removed and one is left only with clothing, body posture, or hairstyle as identifying factors. When looking at Simpson’s work, it is important to consider how a viewer’s background or experiences may affect the interpretation of an image.
Rozeal’s work in 30 Americans is directly influenced by Japanese Kabuki theater. As a child in Washington D.C., she witnessed Kabuki theater and was fascinated by the tradition of men playing female parts, as well as the actors’ stylized characterizations. Untitled (after Kikugawa Eizan’s Furyu Nana Komachi [The Modern Seven Komashi]) is one of the last works the artist created in her a3 series (short for afro-asiatic allegory), also referred to as the blackface paintings. This series examines the contemporary Japanese phenomenon of ganguro, a trend in the 1990s among Japanese teenagers that reflected an appropriation of African American hip-hop and celebrity culture through larger-than-life hairstyles, darkened skin, and heavy makeup. Rozeal combines the signature flatness of traditional Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints with current cultural references to create works that appear both historic and contemporary. Her unique style reflects current global interconnections, particularly between East and West, and speaks to issues of authenticity and identity in the 21st century.
Part two of this blog post will look at how theatricality and role-play are explored through selected works in video and photography.
-Katherine Love, Assistant Curator Contemporary Art