McCallum and Tarry invoke a more subtle conversation about race

Evenly Yoked at Spelman Museum of Fine Art

History can't lie still. Just weeks ago, the FBI released documents indicating that noted photographer and activist Ernest C. Withers served as a so-called racial informant from at least 1968 to 1970. During those years he allegedly used his front row seat as a photojournalist to report back to the government on the very sanitation strikes and student uprisings to which he seemed so loyal.

One of the images in Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry's midcareer survey Evenly Yoked, currently on view at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, is based on a Withers photo. The image proves to be as slippery as the history itself.

In "Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28, 1968 (after Ernest Withers; New York Public Library Image Collection)," the husband and wife team take Withers' original photo of sanitation workers carrying placards that read "I Am a Man" and render it in monochromatic oils. Over this they've stretched the same image printed on gauzy silk, slightly misaligned and resized. The effect suggests the haze of memory and the fog of history. And given the recent revelations surrounding Withers, the layers also suggest that in our national drama of race, time is as likely to produce questions as answers.

"Strike" is one of some 60 works produced in the same manner that comprise more than half the show. Most of the images seem dredged up from a familiar historical picture book: police dogs harassing black protesters, a Klan funeral, the hanging body of a lynched man. Or a shared national mythology: film stills from Imitation of Life, Mahogany and Coffy.

But if the works are meant to reconfigure our relationship to these historical moments, they largely don't. The work is ambitious, but too stiff to be transformative. They feel instead like the obligatory righteous indignation used to justify the nuance, grace and moral ambiguity of the video work in the rest of the show.

By contrast, the video works are where the couple says something brave and new both about themselves and about how race informs relationships. In "Topsy Turvy," McCallum (who's white) and Tarry (who's black) rotate end over end, joined together in a continuous fluid motion in the New York Historical Society's magnificent gothic hallway.

The action of the video is simple, but it reveals ever-deeper levels of psychological truth with each slow motion repetition. In one moment he's on top, his face grand and stoic. A moment later he drops from view and her face rises like the sun. The action dramatizes our conjoined racial histories, oppositional and symbiotic at the same time. But it also plays out the tumultuous zero-sum moments that all intimate relationships go through in which one can't be on the way up unless the other's on the way down.

As with all of the videos, "Topsy Turvy" seizes the visual language of mainstream cinema: close-ups, dramatic cuts, a musical soundtrack. And like similarly lush work by filmmakers Isaac Julien and Matthew Barney, it proves that Hollywood's vocabulary can be siphoned off to a work of philosophy as easily as any narrative work.

Situated at the entrance to the main gallery, "Exchange" features the couple injecting each other with hypodermic syringes to transfuse blood each to the other. The video evokes contamination, devotion and mutual infection, making no distinctions between the three. And in "Evenly Yoked," the most recent video, the couple plays various roles — a slave and confederate soldier, antebellum aristocrats, and a modern married couple — revealing how even the most intimate relationship drags the whole history of race relations behind it.

Evenly Yoked presents the rapidly maturing work of two fearless artists preparing the way for a new and more subtle conversation about race. Their work reveals that history, even as it anchors us, still somehow slips sideways into the present.