Amy Sherald, Pythagore, 2016, photo courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

Amy Sherald, Pythagore, 2016, photo courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture

As noted in an Artillery Pick quite recently, portraiture is the oldest form of ‘identity art’, and moreover, representation itself. It is ‘naming’ in the largest sense – placing, identifying, classifying, narrating, and implicitly conceptualizing, though without explanation. In other words, at its most successful, it gives us some sense of what it means to be alive in a specific time and place. To the extent that the classifying impulse has often functioned as an aspect of colonialism, we can be grateful that Face to Face, the California African American Museum’s current show of portraiture, is liberated from that taint. The current show is bracing both in terms of its chronological and stylistic range, and its clear reflection of L.A. collectors’ on-going engagement with this work. But what is particularly fascinating is the extent to which over the course of that liberation from the vestiges of colonialism, African-American artists have transformed the classifying impulse into something larger, more broadly conceptual and frankly subversive – e.g., the performative aspect of work by Mickalene Thomas and Tschabalala Self, or crossing the representational threshold into the domain of fiction, as in the ‘imagined’ (or is it?) portraiture of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The iconic ‘reversal’ (or perhaps more literally here, ‘inversion’) is another strategy represented here. It’s the polar-opposite of, say, Kehinde Wiley (who is also represented here – in one of his more interesting paintings), where the iconic aspect of a subject is referenced and simultaneously subverted. Titus Kaphar does this quite literally in his 2014 Jerome VII, where the lower half of the subject’s head, floating in its gold leafed field, is enshrouded by gold-flecked tar. Even the most straightforward and conventional of the portraits evince a sense of flux, the conditional (and perhaps aspirational) – always moving towards another place, another way of being. In this relatively compact exhibition, curators Naima J. Keith and Diana Nawi have in turn offered viewers another way of seeing that process play out. 

California African American Museum (CAAM)
600 State Drive – Exposition Park
Los Angeles, CA 90037
Show runs thru October 8, 2017