Off the Record @Guggenheim

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing the work of 13 artists, hung against white walls in a pair of divided gallery spaces. The works in this show were drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, and the exhibit was organized by Ashley James.

The following artists have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, their processes, and other details as background:

  • Sadie Barnette: 5 inkjet prints, 2017, each sized 22×17 inches
  • Sarah Charlesworth: 1 set of 26 chromogenic prints, 1977/2008, each sized roughly 24×17 inches
  • Sara Cwynar: 3 chromogenic prints, 2014, each sized 40×32 inches
  • Leslie Hewitt: 3 chromogenic prints, 2006-2009, each sized 30×24 inches
  • Tomashi Jackson: 1 archival prints on PVC marine vinyl, acrylic paint, American campaign materials, Greek ballot papers, campaign sign, paper bags, Greek canvas, and Pentelic marble dust, 2020, sized 91×100 inches
  • Glenn Ligon: 3 oil and gesso on linen, 1992, each sized 80×30 inches
  • Carlos Motta: 1 offset lithograph on newsprint, 2005/2014, sized roughly 22×17 inches
  • Lisa Oppenheim:  2 sets of 3 chromogenic prints, 2007, each roughly 29×13 inches overall; 1 set of 2 chromogenic prints, 2007, sized roughly 19×13 inches overall
  • Adrian Piper: 1 set of 6 gelatin silver prints with silkscreen ink, 1992, sized 73×141 inches overall
  • Lorna Simpson: 1 diptych of gelatin silver prints with engraved plastic plaque, 1991, sized roughly 52×70 inches overall
  • Sable Elyse Smith: 2 silkscreen ink, oil stick, and oil pastel on paper, 2018, sized roughly 60×50, 60×56 inches
  • Hank Willis Thomas: 3 chromogenic prints, 1975/2008, 1971/2007, 1984/2007, each sized roughly 30×21 or 30×23 inches
  • Carrie Mae Weems: 2 chromogenic prints with etched text on glass, 1995, each sized roughly 27×23 inches

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 2019, the Guggenheim hired Ashley James as its first full time Black curator. Armed with a Yale PhD and buoyed by a recent curatorial stint at the Brooklyn Museum, where she organized the excellent Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibit (among others), James arrived into a charged institutional context. Conflict between Guggenheim chief curator Nancy Spector (who has since left the museum) and guest curator Chaédria LaBouvier over the museum’s recent Basquiat exhibition boiled over onto social media, where LaBouvier outed the climate of hostility she had faced while putting the show together and promoting it to the public.

With the museum under pressure to respond to allegations of racial prejudice and discrimination, for James, the situation likely meant even more attention than might usually be paid to the arrival of a new associate curator of contemporary art. But for most new curatorial hires at major museums, the starting place is often a modest show drawn from the permanent collection, and Off the Record is just such a show, one that likely allowed James to familiarize herself with the museum’s holdings while also formulating a thematic construct that might tell us something about her voice as a curator.

Off the Record takes as its baseline the idea of historical documents (of various kinds, including photographs) and the “truths” they offer us. In many cases, on the surface, such materials seem to set out one set of “facts”, yet if we start to pull on their loose threads, we can often reveal other layers of truth, reality, mindset, and conflict. Artists are particularly good at wrestling with this kind of conceptual complexity, and so James has drawn together roughly a dozen relatively contemporary approaches to engaging with “documents” and then using different strategies to help expose alternate versions of what those documents might actually represent. Many of the artworks chosen by James were made by Black artists, so the show thoughtfully digs into issues of systemic racism, embedded prejudice and bias, and the Black experience more broadly.

Chronologically, the show begins with Sarah Charlesworth in the late 1970s and moves forward to the present. Charlesworth’s blanked out newspaper front pages lead a selection of works that use removal as their method of artistic intervention. For an entire month in 1977, Charlesworth removed all the text from the front page of the Herald Tribune, leaving only the accompanying black and white photographs. Without headlines and news stories, the sparsely populated spreads tell us something insightful about attention – about what kinds of stories get told (war, geopolitics, government), what kinds of people they feature (overwhelmingly white men), and as a corollary, what kinds of news is omitted or marginalized. Hank Willis Thomas uses removal in a slightly different manner in his smart series Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008. He too removed the surrounding text, this time from ads featuring Black subjects, highlighting the stereotypes and visual tropes (jungle animals, patterned fabrics, robes, and a strangely smiling Billy Dee Williams) around the presentation of Black people that lay underneath seemingly innocuous cigarette, shampoo, and beauty product setups. And Lisa Oppenheim inverts the sense of removal in her works – starting with FSA prints that Walker Evans hole-punched to prevent them from being used, she reimagined the content of the small holes, allowing us to “see” the gaps in a corn field, a clock tower, and a girl holding a wash bucket, filling out what the original documents refused to communicate.

Other artists included in the show have used other forms of recontextualization to attempt to unlock less visible layers of history and reshape our understanding of what documents show us. Sara Cwynar’s works gather together encyclopedic arrays of images, where thumbnail taxonomies of banana trees, Brigitte Bardot, and the Acropolis are held together the presence of her finger and measured by wooden rulers. Her reorganization of the images highlights the patterns in their depictions, and the repetitions that support cultural perceptions of colonialism, sex symbol celebrity, and global tourism. Leslie Hewitt’s photographs similarly reconsider the resonances to be found in archival materials, layering spreads drawn from Ebony and Jet with more personal snapshots. Her piling of the imagery collapses time, bringing family barbecues and quiet conversations into dialogue with histories that include protest marches and the experience of being a Black student at medical school. And works by Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson reconsider the historical power imbalances in photographs of Black people, using tints and text overlays to tell broader, more nuanced stories than those embedded in early daguerreotypes, and turning subjects (a Black woman and an African mask) away from the camera to reinforce our sense of the visibility (and invisibility) they routinely face.

Active mark making is another approach the artists in Off the Record have employed to disrupt or reinterpret existing documents. Sadie Barnette uses pink spraypaint to interrogate her father’s FBI file, her spots and gestures undermining the conclusion that his “immoral” association with the Black Panther party should lead to his termination from his job as a postal carrier. Sable Elyse Smith breaks out the colored oil sticks to scribble over a children’s coloring book about the judicial system, calling into question whether its simplified views of incarceration and justice apply to all. And Glen Ligon allows his stenciled paintings to become increasingly illegible, the Jean Genet phrase “We Are the Ink that Gives the White Page a Meaning” moving from neat clarity to muddy all over bleed.

While a small thematic group show like this one won’t likely end up being a durably memorable landmark, it certainly offers an understated but well argued introduction to James and her approach to engaging with the collection. We’re in the middle of a moment where marginalized artistic perspectives of all kinds are being rediscovered and museums are rushing to set down proofs of their inclusivity, but James’s show goes beyond an overly easy tallying of underheard voices. Instead, it asks us to wrestle with a tight range of complexities these artists have experienced, and to follow along as they show (and teach) us what we have failed to see before. It’s an idea-rich and participatory approach to art that acknowledges its ability to incisively unravel the rhythms (and structures) of broader culture, however controversial those insights may be. Even on a small scale, it’s the kind of intellectual and curatorial risk taking that bodes well for the museum’s potential to initiate and lead complex and necessary contemporary discussions.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices, and given the large number of artists included, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, Hank Willis Thomas, Leslie Hewitt, Lisa Oppenheim, Lorna Simpson, Sara Cwynar, Sarah Charlesworth, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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