Each day, guest blogger John Murph introduces readers to a new 30 Americans artist. Delving into their inspirations and intentions, Murph explores the perspectives that make each of these 31 artists truly unique.
Thank you for following along. The exhibition opens tomorrow!
Not only is today special because it’s the last day of our countdown, but since 30 Americans in fact features 31 artists, we’re doubling up today. Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) and Xaviera Simmons (b. 1974) both draw inspiration from popular music, and while they listen to some of the same tunes, their approaches embody perspectives and attitudes of different generations.
In the 10 years since receiving his Master of Fine Arts from Yale University, Kehinde Wiley has catapulted to the upper echelon of the contemporary art world. His super-realistic paintings of men of color in heroic, majestic, or bucolic settings deliberately reference works by the Old Masters.
Glenn Ligon employs the practice of intertextuality in his conceptual work. This term, coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966, describes how pre-existing texts are transformed into new texts. Ligon’s intertextual works often touches upon race, language, and sexual identity.
View these works by Glenn Ligon. Can you identify the author of the original text?
Various characters from his Los Angeles surroundings often inhabit Henry Taylor’s vivid paintings. Taylor has incorporated the likenesses of family members as well as neighborhood friends in his works. While attending the California Institute of the Arts, Taylor worked as a psychiatric technician at the Camarillo State Hospital. There he sketched various patients.
Classic daytime TV soap operas such as All My Children and The Days of Our Lives have fueled many of Kalup Linzy’s hilarious video vignettes. He lampoons the stilted acting performances and risible plots while subversively making pointed commentaries about race, class, and sexual identity. Perhaps part of the appeal of Linzy’s videos is the way he flips the casting script. Soap operas have long been popular in the African American community, but the actors are mostly white.
In many of Rodney McMillian’s enthralling instillations and performance pieces, he ignites our sensory functions as much as he does our cerebral ones. Whether it’s an empty, soiled upholstered armchair or floppy, cut-out canvas of the Supreme Court Building, his works evoke a melancholy past of bygone glory days as he depicts the emotional void. Still, there’s often a socio-political edge to his works, as they often touch upon important events and people who are sometimes omitted from conventional historical records.
Renée Green’s transfixing installations epitomize the Information Age because they’re often built upon archival material, regardless of her chosen medium–film, text, photography, prints, sculptures, music, textiles, fabrics, and new media. Her prismatic art explores themes surrounding cultural and personal history and memory.
In 2009, the Musée cantonal des Beaux Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland, exhibited Ongoing Becoming, a retrospective of Green’s works, spanning from 1989 to 2009.
Satire plays a huge role in Robert Colescott’s vibrant, at times claustrophobic paintings. Colescott addressed issues surrounding history and racial stereotypes with wry, transgressive humor and keen observation. In 1975, he began creating a series of works that referenced classic Western art but recast central figures as black.
See images of George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook, and Eat Dem Taters alongside their Western art counterparts.
While exploring and challenging long-held notions of feminine beauty, Mickalene Thomas creates stupendously textured paintings through her sublime use of rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel. Sometimes she accompanies those painting with video installations that juxtapose Blaxploitation film imagery with that of classic Western European portraiture.
The world of advertisement—and all the sociopolitical implications it has regarding race, gender, and class—provide the launching pad for Hank Willis Thomas’ bold photographs. Sometimes, his works include autobiographical information, as in Priceless #1, which riffs off the famous MasterCard slogan yet depicts the funeral of his murdered cousin, Songha Willis.
From a cursory glance, Kara Walker’s black cut-paper silhouettes look like benign 19th-century antebellum scenes or Walt Disney cartoon characters from such classic pieces as the 1946 film, Song of the South. A closer probing investigation reveals the underlying terror surrounding race, gender, and sexual identity politics in America.
Kerry James Marshall makes no apologies for focusing on black America in his vibrant, large-scale paintings and sculptures. He opts for representational art over abstraction, yet he tends to portray his central figures in almost complete blackness, blurring many of the distinctive physical details while confronting racial stereotypes, race-based economic disparities, and African mythologies.
Self-taught artist Purvis Young made lurid and kinetic large-scale paintings and murals depicting the people of his hometown of Miami. He blended wild horses, jazz singers, and scenes from ancient battles, making poignant social commentaries on urban life. One of his most famous works is Goodbread Alley, his 1972 public mural at the intersection of Northwest Third Avenue and 14th Street in the Overtown district in Miami.
Watch this video as Purvis Young talks about the social commentary of his art.
Many found objects, ranging from old fabrics and discarded picture frames to sneakers and T-shirts make up much of Baltimore-native Shinique Smith’s intriguing art. She sometimes incorporates street graffiti and Japan calligraphy in works that are at once commentary on public consumption and personal reflection.
William Pope.L addresses racism, classism, and other sociopolitical ills through provocative performance art, theater, painting, and photography. He’s best known for his eRacism crawl series, which began in the late 1970s. In one such “crawl,” The Great American Way, he wore a Superman suit and strapped a skateboard onto his back and crawled 22 miles up New York City’s Broadway; it took five years to complete.
On CNN’s African Voices, Wangechi Mutu described some of her work as “feminist intervention.” Her riveting, multilayered collages of women sometimes take on fantastical, cyborg characteristics. She admitted to being obsessed with female bodies, particularly have how they can be exploited for hard labor and then be deemed worthless with regards for beauty and respect.
The visual and narrative language of coloring books fuels much of the fantastical sensibilities of John Bankston’s oil, acrylic, ceramic, watercolor and sculpture works. As Daniell Cornell of the Queer Culture Center explains, Bankston juggles the art of painting and drawing, representation and abstraction to transport viewers in a world of childlike reveries. The adventure voyages, science fiction, and fairy tales he relays in his work simultaneously touch upon themes of race, gender roles, masculinity, and sexuality.
Jeff Sonhouse concentrates on themes of black masculinity in his striking paintings that often find his subjects donning menacing, multipatterned masks and vivid, dandy-like suits. At times focusing on iconic or controversial figures, Sonhouse has created portraits of Colin Powell, Michael Jackson, and Diddy. In 2008, Sonhouse broke the mode of depicting only men with his exhibition Pawnography, which included a portrait of former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, Lorna Simpson’s seductive photography and paintings concentrated on themes of race, gender, and sexuality. She would often pair strategically cropped images of women’s body parts alongside enigmatic text. In January 2011, Simpson offered a very different kind of photo-based work, with the exhibition Gathered at the Brooklyn Museum.
Watch as Simpson talks about the making of Gathered and the relationship between fact and fiction.
Richard Brautigan’s provocative 1968 novella In Watermelon Sugar provided the impetus for Noah Davis’ 2010 exhibition The Forgotten Works at Roberts & Tilton gallery in Los Angeles. The literary work centers around a post-apocalyptic commune that resides in a gathering house known as iDEATH. In the story, the sun constantly changes colors. One of the major characters, inBOIL, decides to leave the commune and live in a forbidden area called “The Forgotten Works,” which is built upon the ruins of a former civilization.
Bliz-aard Ball Sale is one of David Hammons’s most famous and influential performance art pieces. In 1983, he sold snowballs of varying sizes and prices in Manhattan alongside other street vendors during a winter snowstorm. The satirical performance commented on the U.S. capitalism system, the classist nature of the high-art world, and on the superficial value of “whiteness” in U.S. racial politics. Three years later, Hammons said this about the art world: "The art audience is the worst audience in the world.
“Black science” is an ideal description for Rashid Johnson’s absorbing photography, sculptures, conceptual, and video works that investigate the worlds of science fiction, divination, black American history, and hip-hop culture, as well as personal memories.
Gary Simmons is best known for his eerie “erasure” drawings. He illustrates figures and iconic objects with white chalk and then smears them. This technique gives them a haunting, sometimes nightmarish allure as he addresses themes surrounding race, class, and personal history.
While Nick Cave was finishing up his graduate degree at Kansas City Art Institute, he was also studying dance through an Alvin Ailey program in both Kansas City and in New York. Today, the performance artist, fabric sculptor, and dancer is best known for his elaborate, transformative “soundsuits.” When worn, these otherworldly garments give the wearer shaman-like characteristics as they completely overwhelm conventional human physiology. Cave’s constructs these works from unlikely found material such as twigs, bottle caps, and wires.
Barkley L. Hendricks’ large-scale paintings and photographs epitomize black American urban style. His portraiture works infuses a certain romanticism into realistic depictions of contemporary black people. Dignified and fashionable, his subjects aren’t generic types but recognizable human beings.
iona rozeal brown often takes cues from her explorations as a DJ when juxtaposing elements of Japan’s ganguro culture and black American hip-hop and fashion. In such acclaimed works such as 2003’s Untitled I (Female), 2009’s King Kata #3: Peel Out (After Yoshitoshi’s Incomparable Warriors: Women Han Gaku, and A Children’s Story, she also draws upon Japanese Ukiyo-E woodblock prints and paintings.
While growing up in Los Angeles, Mark Bradford used to make signs for his mother’s hair salon. In fact, at one time, he worked as a hairdresser in that salon. As he explained to PBS’s Art21, that upbringing instilled a joy and understanding with working with his hands and the art of making. “My art practice goes back to my childhood, but it’s not an art background. I’ve always been a creator. My mother was a creator; my grandmother was a creator,” Bradford explained.
In the November 2008 issue of W Magazine, a 26-year-old Nina Chanel Abney explained to Haven Thompson how celebrity scandals inspire some of her vibrant, often brazen paintings that at once suggest Francis Bacon, David Hockney, and contemporary street murals. “I’m fascinated by how celebrity news has become not more interesting, but more important than politics. I like to infuse that with race issues,” Abney said, referring to her 2007 solo debut show, Dirty Wash, at New York’s Kravets|Wehby gallery.
The cyclical nature of life–decay and resurrection–plays a central recurring role throughout Leonardo Drew’s elaborate and enthralling installations and multilayered sculptures, which are often composed of found objects, wood, and fabrics. As gripping as Drew’s large-scale works are, they can be enigmatic to the point of hermetic, forcing some viewers to question the validity of its artistry. Others are captivated by the suggestiveness and mystery of the works.
In 1981, Jean-Michael Basquiat and Michael Holman formed the industrial art-rock group, Gray. The two met in April 1979 at “The Canal Zone” party. Other members included Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford, Shannon Dawson, and Vincent Gallo. Basquiat got the band’s name from the medical reference text Gray’s Anatomy, a touchstone of his later visual works. Gray performed at such legendary 1980s New York haunts as CBGB’s, the Mudd Club, and Hurrah’s.
In addition to creating dazzling photographs and gripping sculptures, Xaviera Simmons also makes critically acclaimed installations. These often investigate music, particularly cherished LP artwork. In 2006, she created How to Break Your Own Heart, stapling classic jazz albums covers on the walls of New York City’s Art in General gallery, where she frequently deejays. “I constructed this installation as a site of sensorial intervention in a heavily trafficked landscape,” she explained to the New York Foundation for the Arts.
For more than 25 years, Carrie Mae Weems has explored themes of race, gender relations, and family history in her installations. Recently, the award-winning visual artist teamed up with the critically acclaimed jazz pianist Geri Allen on Flying toward the Sound (2010). Weems produced images and videos for Allen’s amazing solo piano excursions.
Watch Weems video for Geri Allen’s “Faith Carriers of Life” from Flying toward the Sound.
About the Author
John Murph is an acclaimed Washington, D.C.-based music and art journalist. He has contributed regularly to The Washington Post, The Washington City Paper, National Public Radio, The Root, JazzTimes, Down Beat, and JazzWise. Murph has covered international cultural events in Canada, Spain, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Panama, Barbados, Anguilla, and South Africa; and has interviewed such renowned figures as Seth MacFarlane, Quincy Jones, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Herbie Hancock, Q-Tip, Aretha Franklin, ?uestlove, Vernon Reid, Geri Allen and a host of others.