Black + Brown People | White Problems

In Boston, Emily Watlington finds a way passed the Schutz controversy and spectacle through thoughtful and adaptive work

By Emily Watlington

Steve Locke, Untitled (Memories-blue), 2016, from the series Family Pictures, light jet print on 100% cotton paper, 39 x 52 cm. Courtesy the artist and Samsøñ, Boston

Samsøñ, Boston, 9 June – 19 August 2017

The only way to enter Black + Brown People | White Problems is by stepping on the Confederate flag lying on the floor in the entrance way. Facing viewers from the end of the long and narrow gallery are archival photographs of lynchings and black servitude set in frames engraved with sentimental phrases like ‘Always & Forever’ and ‘Good Friends’. This is Family Pictures (2016), Steve Locke’s contribution to the exhibition, a group show of works by artists of colour that takes as its subject uncomfortable conversations. The images are painful and poignant comments on the long history of the casual depiction and spectacularisation of murdered African-American bodies, which today occurs in a new form. While the practice of white people exchanging postcards of lynchings has waned, photos and videos depicting murdered black bodies continue to go viral and garner click capital.

The press release to the show features a 1955 photograph of Emmet Till’s murderers, gleeful after news of their acquittal – a nod, no doubt, to Dana Schutz’s contested solo exhibition on view contemporaneously about a mile away at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. Schutz’s painting of Till, Open Casket (2016), sparked protests and conversations about capitalising on black suffering after its inclusion in the last Whitney Biennial. Locke’s poignant handling of media spectacularisation – which precedes the Schutz controversy – likewise centres on images of black deaths, and regardless of the artists’ respective identities, Locke clearly offers a much more thoughtful and careful handling of these images, situating his own use of images of black bodies within both the current moment and the long history of their abuse.

Locke’s timely critique of spectacle should here be extended to the ways in which uncomfortable conversations are turned into controversy and then capitalised on, wherein criticism becomes clickbait. While the conversation has been a productive one, it has come at the cost of shifting focus away from some incredibly powerful – and frankly better – painters who were in the Whitney Biennial, including Tala Madani and Henry Taylor, both on view once again at Samsøñ.

Few recent painters have struck me as hard as these two. Taylor’s Tasered (2006), his contribution to this exhibition, is painted in colours rich yet flat, with brushstrokes at once careful and urgent; the painting is both responsive and considered. Not only in form, but in process and content, taking distance from timely images: the police officer who shot Philando Castile was acquitted of all charges while Taylor’s painting of Castile was on view in the biennial. Madani’s Hands In (2005) similarly has the quickest brushstrokes of any of her paintings that I’ve seen. This simultaneous responsiveness and reflection provides the perfect model for how to try and act in a political climate like this one: to act thoughtfully but to respond urgently and passionately.

The curatorial strategy likewise points to the merits of reflective responsiveness – the exhibition and its accompanying library have grown throughout the summer by way of new books and new works. The exhibition also responds to the ossification of the Schutz exhibition on the ICA’s calendar before her name was a controversial one. There are protesters who believe this is no excuse – that Schutz’s show (which does not include the painting of Till) should be pulled, that it is irresponsible to go on with business as usual. Either way, it is perhaps more powerful to look away from the spectacle and turn instead to Black + Brown People | White Problems, which offers not only different voices but more thoughtful and adaptive work. Rather than reactionary opportunism, the Samsøñ exhibition provides a space to engage in careful and urgent – and at times uncomfortable – conversations about pervasive white problems. 

From the December 2017 issue of ArtReview