Matters of race

Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia ends year on a high note

There is no clearer example of white America's twisted love-hate aversion and attraction to black America than the minstrel act. An enormously popular American show biz tradition since the mid-19th century, minstrelry featured whitey applying black face and the dress and manner of "authentic black folk" and merrily wallowing in the resulting stereotypes.

The minstrel has been called variously a parody, an homage, racist, a misguided tribute and a reduction of "black" to some sentimentalized or hateful shtick.

Los Angeles artist Mark Steven Greenfield makes artworks that use 19th- and 20th-century photographs of minstrel performers as signposts on an intimate tour of our freakish cultural history.

Combined with Greenfield's damning text of mock-rapper vernacular overlaying the image as in "Whatchoolookinat- muthafukkah," these relics become even more troubling commentaries on current black stereotypes presented in rap music or movies. The minstrel may or may not have been the precursor to today's white boy in sagging pants, knit cap and homeboy shuffle.

Greenfield is one of 18 artists from across the country featured in The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia's Color Culture Complexity. Curated by Dan R. Talley and Ed Spriggs, it is the first truly provocative show in the museum's inaugural season.

Greenfield's works are also some of the most shocking images in this race-centered show. They reveal a forgotten form of caricature that reminds us of how bizarrely and parasitically connected white culture is to the black culture it often reviles.

The same sense of intimacy laced with cruelty that defines American race relations can be seen in another photographic relic in Lisa Tuttle's appropriated snapshot "Billy and the Maid" of a sturdy black domestic, whose name is tellingly never given, toting a pudgy white baby to a sandy lakeside beach.

Vintage photographs provide some of the meatiest and most damning evidence of racism's foundation in Color, as seen in Sally Grizzell Larson's deconstruction of a now-infamous image of the lynching of two black men. By focusing on extreme close-ups of the white spectators isolated from the lynching crowd, Larson makes a gory spectacle into a chilling, measured indictment of the real crime: the impassive faces of the onlookers.

Black viewers will undoubtedly feel vindicated by much of the work on display in Color Culture Complexity. But white viewers have a greater range of options to choose from: enlightenment, understanding, accusation, guilt, defensiveness, anger.

Artist Bradley Bullock produces didactic work that at times short-circuits understanding by inspiring defensiveness. Nowhere is Bullock's accusatory meaning clearer than in a wooden cutout of a Klansmen with a hole cut, fairground style, so viewers can insert their own faces. The "Your Face Here?" query of the title makes the work not only clodhopper literal but off-putting and confrontational in a not necessarily enlightening way.

Other works by Bullock carry a similar sense of rage but with a greater insight into how we are — if not potential Klansmen — at least primed for racism at some point in our childhood. In "Child's Play?" Bullock has provided a selection of cheapo "tasteless joke books" for viewers to flip through in a niche of the museum wallpapered with black-and-white yearbook photographs of middle school-age kids. Bullock makes an unmistakably convincing point about how the gay, black, Mexican, etc. put-downs contained in the books — the kind of callous humor beloved by adolescent boys — becomes an early tutorial in cruel stereotypes that tend to linger beyond the Wonder Years. Instead of assigning blame in an obvious way, "Child's Play?" offers a keyhole glimpse into our common histories: the first time as children we saw, spoke or experienced racism.

New York artist Perry Bard's video "Joan Henry" works on a far more human scale. Three generations of black women recount how moments of racism in their own lives carry lingering consequences. Bard makes viewers immediately understand how deeply racism wounds and how prolonged its effects are, contaminating a family's hope like some dormant cancer cell.

Personal stories like these carry the greatest wallop in Color, especially when seen next to conceptual works like James A. Rose's or Adia Millett's, which can register as academic and cold by comparison.

Some of the most personal expressions of love, misunderstanding, confusion and tenderness appear in Robert Stewart's works, which describe his interracial relationship with a black woman. Stewart's meditations are presented as confessions told to a priest or God and superimposed on iris prints of travel-style snapshots and souvenir keepsakes. These sentimental mementoes are a clever way of showing this black-white relationship as a kind of metaphorical travel. Stewart's is a journey of self-discovery and also into the mysterious arms of the Other.

Stewart's realistically muddled, imperfect, easily misconstrued sentiments show how things are rarely as clear cut as they seem when it comes to black and white. Race is often America's most persistent, bloody battleground. But, as Stewart's complex work suggests, it is just as often a prolonged and ugly lover's quarrel founded on both anger and intimacy, in which even the best intentions can be offensive or misinterpreted.