There is no one else like Adrian Piper. A professor of philosophy at Wellesley College, known for her passionate interest in Immanuel Kant, she has the rare ability to write and speak with fluid, down-to-earth eloquence not only about daunting philosophical problems but also about the kinds of psychological and social conflicts with which few people are at ease. She is a serious student of yoga, and in the past few years has begun to give courses in Indian philosophy and religion. She is best known, however, as a tough and influential Conceptual artist who has fought to make people more aware of the racial assumptions and categories that dehumanize others and them. Spiritual and hard-nosed, empathetic and uncompromising, she is both revered and feared.
No artist has invented more ways to challenge complacency and privilege. She has walked the streets in shades, a black Afro, and mustache, the brashness and goofiness of her masquerade exaggerating and ridiculing racial stereotypes. In her “Vanilla Nightmares” series, she drew a black male specter with his arm around a fashionable white woman in a New York Times ad. Her Black Box/White Box includes two eight-foot cubes, one white, the other black. Inside the white cube is a black leather chair in which we can settle and watch a video monitor playing and replaying the 1991 beating of Rodney King. Beside the chair is a box of white tissues in case we get teary-eyed at the injustice of it all. Behind the chair is a photograph of President George Bush congratulating the Los Angeles Police Department for its response to the L.A. riots. In the black cube, we sit down, look at an image of King’s bruised face, and listen to his plea for everyone to work together. Then his image disappears, a light comes on, and we see ourselves in a mirror.
Piper, 52, has returned again and again to the subject of miscegenation. Her 1988 Cornered is one of the defining works in the two merged Piper shows at the New Museum of Contemporary Art: Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, 1965-2000 was organized by the cultural critic Maurice Berger; MEDI(t)Ations: Adrian Piper’s Videos, Installations, Performances and Soundworks 1968-1992, by independent curator Dara Meyers-Kingsley. On one wall is a 1953 birth certificate in which the artist’s father is listed as octoroon. On an adjacent wall is a second birth certificate, from 1965, in which he is white. From a video monitor in a corner, behind an overturned black table, the primly dressed Piper addresses viewers in a measured voice about the effects of 400 years of intermarriage. After noting, in Berger’s words, that “almost all purportedly white Americans have between 5 and 20 percent black ancestry,” she asks: Now that you know this, what are you going to do about it?
The family portraits that begin and end the exhibitions suggest the poignancy of Piper’s personal history. In the 1966 painting Multichrome Mom and Dad, Piper’s mother, clearly black, faces the viewer while proudly leaning on her pipe-smoking husband, whose race is less apparent. Looking to the side, he is more worldly than she, more concerned with what others are doing and thinking. In the startling 1995 Ashes to Ashes, a four-foot-tall black-and-white photograph shows Piper’s parents as a beautiful young couple; a smaller color photograph shows them gray-haired, her father shriveled and ill. In the four-foot-tall column of text in the center of the work, Piper communicates with poetic succinctness their love for each other – as well as their dependency and their differences. Her lifelong insistence on consciousness, responsibility, and will is easy to understand.
The candor of Food for the Spirit, from 1971, is just as compelling and complex. It comprises fourteen photographs Piper took of herself, naked or in various states of dress, emerging from or disappearing into darkness. While standing and holding her brownie camera, she read aloud from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, fearful, Berger writes, that she was “losing touch with the world” and “evaporating into a Kantian state of pure reason.” The work shows us (the sound part has been lost) someone suspended between visibility and invisibility, vulnerability and mastery, philosophy and art, needing the power of voice and image and experiencing philosophy as a force of truth and nature.
Piper is often labeled a political artist, and indeed, her work is unmistakably committed to social change. But she is a visionary. Goya and Blake would have recognized her as a kindred spirit, an artist who sees what others won’t and makes us feel that wrestling with our demons can be both a liberating and an aesthetic act.
After making a mark in New York with photographs of naked Japanese women in their nineties, Manabu Yamanaka returns to the Stux Gallery with nineteen black-and-white photographs of children from poor villages in Burma and the Philippines. The children look wounded, needy, defiant, and beautiful. Their physical differences reveal the complexity of the idea of race. Some are naked. All, like Yamanaka’s elderly women, are totally un-self-conscious about their bodies. The 30-inch-wide, 60-inch-tall photographs are hung so the gaze of the children meets and is equal in authority to ours. Photographed against white paper, they seem suspended yet intensely present. The series is called “Dohshi,” a Buddhist word suggesting purity. By not including the names of the children, or any information about them, Yamanaka denies their everyday realities, but his main point – that the spirit of Buddha can be found in anyone, anywhere – generates as much respect for them as names and histories could bring.
The achievement of Willie Birch’s new paintings at the Ross Gallery is that they belong equally to Birch’s African-American neighborhood in New Orleans and to the institutional art world. They are portraits of ordinary people, each painted with extraordinary affection. Birch has a special feeling for faces and hands and for the way in which a body holds taut, relaxes, or preens and in the process reveals who that person is. These paintings would be at home in community art centers, where a neighborhood goes to know and celebrate itself. But they would also be at home in museums. Birch is equally comfortable with European modernists like Henri Matisse, African-American modernists like William H. Johnson, and African sculpture. Through painting, Birch gives his community a home in the world.