‘We Wear the Mask’
Through Feb. 27. Higher Pictures Generation, 16 Main Street, Brooklyn; 212-249-6100, higherpicturesgeneration.com.
Curating is an art form, the Mississippi-born, Brooklyn-based photographer D’Angelo Lovell Williams reminds us with “We Wear the Mask,” a show of photographs he organized at Higher Pictures Generation. As if to demonstrate this, the exhibition’s news release is a nearly 14-minute video that opens with Williams, costumed in a dress made with an American flag pattern, reciting “We Wear the Mask,” by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), and lounging and frolicking nude in a verdant summer landscape.
The video, which includes introductions by the 10 artists in the show, sets the tone for the exhibition. It acknowledges the hardships of Black Americans, but also their achievements, resilience and joy. Trent Bozeman’s photographs celebrate his ancestors, the Gullah people off the coast of South Carolina. Photographs by Nakeya Brown, like “Almost All the Way to Love” (2017), explore the politics of Black beauty by arranging still lifes with hair products, curlers, hair straighteners and album covers by Black female singers. Keisha Scarville creates portraits using her dead mother’s clothing. Her photographs also hark back to artfully staged African portraits from the 1950s and ’60s.
Other artists here document Bedford Stuyvesant and its cultural diversity, gang symbols, the marketing of sportswear, interactions between Black people and the police, and the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If the poem “We Wear the Mask” searingly explored being Black after the Civil War and living a sort of dual existence (“Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask”), the exhibition similarly focuses on ideas of visibility and what it means to be a Black American today — and the video gives a face and voice to the artists. Along with the Kamoinge exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art — this show includes Russell Frederick, a member of that Black photography workshop — “We Wear the Mask” is one of the best photography exhibitions in the city right now, which is, of course, Black History Month. MARTHA SCHWENDENER
Reggie Burrows Hodges
Through March 14. Karma, 188 and 172 East 2nd Street, Manhattan; 212-390-8290, karmakarma.org.
Reggie Burrows Hodges isn’t the first artist to depict Black people with the color black, though it’s always a powerful formal choice, at once visually striking and dense with cultural argument. But the way Hodges does it, in his debut New York solo show at Karma, adds a level of extra magic. The trick is that he doesn’t actually paint people at all. Instead he paints entire canvases black, then fills in furniture, walls and clothing around them, leaving the subjects themselves as untouched, impossibly deep silhouettes.
Most of the paintings in this exhibition catch their subjects in fleeting, ordinary moments — applying mascara, leaping over a hurdle — that contrast strangely with the otherworldly quality of their bodies. In a smaller painting like “Community Concern” (2020), which shows a woman in white shirt and orange pants in mid-dance, you might not notice so much. Her posture gives you all the expression you might otherwise look for in her featureless face, and she stands out against the deep green wall behind her. But in a larger piece like “For the Greater Good: White Ground” (2019), in which the figures are contiguous with their own endless shadows, the contrast between body and soul becomes more evident.
It doesn’t diminish the bodies, though, or what they’re doing. It simply proposes that as real as hurdles or mascara may be, there’s something even realer behind them. WILL HEINRICH
Through Feb. 20. Andrew Kreps Gallery, 22 Cortlandt Alley, Manhattan; (212) 741-8849, andrewkreps.com.
The artist He Xiangyu, who was born in China in 1986, may be best known for his “Cola Project” of 2009-12. It entailed boiling down 127 tons of Coca-Cola into a residue that he used as ink or let harden into lava-like chunks that he presented as sculpture. Thus, an unusually pure form of Western, capitalist toxicity is converted into an aesthetic commodity.
“Cola Project” may have been a tough act to follow. “Soft Dilemma,” the artist’s first solo show in the United States, at Andrew Kreps, opts instead for beguiling charm in an affecting meditation on childhood, growing up and art. These themes can be found in four sculptures and a 35-minute video, but not so much in “Hard Palate,” an opulent, imposing 19 feet by 17 feet expanse of 20 individual drawings that — beautiful as it is — is generic as abstraction.
“Practical Opacity,” which greets visitors, is nearly irresistible: Five beat-up school chairs are paired with five 6-inch-high copies that match every scratch and graffiti. Ready-mades contrast with handmade; children’s art with superlative skill; functional object with toy. Farther in, “Asian Boy” is a life-size sculpture of a 10-year-old, a slim figure in underwear, in solid stainless steel that was polished and then in essence fired, like porcelain, to achieve a stonelike, matte gray surface. The process seems to be the artist’s invention; its strikingly subtle effect adds mystery to the figure. His head is bowed so it’s not immediately apparent that his face resembles the serene visage of a Chinese sculpture of Buddha or a bodhisattva — adding wonder to the mystery. The show is freest of sentimentality in “Terminal 3” a two-channel seemingly unguided documentary that follows a group of mostly Muslim students from Ethiopia and Sierra Leone through three years of study at an acrobatics school in China. They learn the basics, then more difficult feats from both African and Chinese teachers. They practice and pray; eat and walk through town together and finally go to the airport terminal to return home and see how their new skills will figure in their futures. ROBERTA SMITH