Perhaps the chief surprise of Freestyle – a show of work by young black artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem – is what’s not there. The powerful themes of racism and black identity do not make themselves felt in a particularly earnest, angry, weighty, or wounding manner. Even Rashid Johnson’s dramatic black-and-white photographs look more like an homage to the early depictions of racial suffering than a statement about present conditions. A casual observer might mistakenly conclude that “Freestyle” is a survey of the work of young artists in general, a few of whom happen to be black.
Organized by Thelma Golden, “Freestyle” is one of the first exhibits mounted by the Studio Museum under its new director, Lowery Stokes Sims. Both Sims and Golden are refugees from large New York institutions – the Met and the Whitney, respectively – and seem deter-mined to take advantage of what a small, nimble museum can do. Among other things, that means providing quick snapshots of evolving black culture. If this snapshot is accurate, many young black artists now prefer to be subtle, even oblique, about race. Others are satirists. In Defining Absence, Adia Millett, one of several artists who work with domestic themes, makes a mysterious dollhouse emptied of people; in one tidy room, there is an old Black Panther poster and a fussy tea set. Tana Hargest has invented the scabrously funny BNBN – Bitter Nigger Broadcast Network – which lampoons corporate media-think as much as it ridicules racism.
Quite a few artists make pictures laced with cartoonish or pop elements, as in John Bankston’s and David Huffman’s visual fables or the fantastical visions of Deborah Grant and Trenton Doyle Hancock. They’re part of a larger strain of art today, in which artists fashion private worlds from public detritus. According to Sanford Biggers, the “next America” will be “delineated more on the lines of economics than ethnicity.” In a small world, a video collaboration he made with Jennifer Zackin, he plays class against race, juxtaposing home movies from a middle-class Jewish and a middle-class black family. Both show the kids pounding on the piano and playing on the beach. There is no distinguishing difference between the two images except race. The work therefore forces even those who are not racists to see racially – in a new and disorienting way, as if race itself were becoming intertwined with nostalgia.