Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Curator Naomi Beckwith’s latest exhibition, Color Bind:The MCA Collection in Black and White, currently on view through April 28, is a dynamic and engaging mix of works from the MCA’s collection. Conceived from the examination of the formal, conceptual and sociopolitical ideas associated with the colors of black and white, the exhibition provides viewers with the opportunity to reflect upon their own attitudes toward and notions of these contrapositive shades. Composed of works that span from the likes of Jaume Plensa, the artist who created Chicago’s Millennium Park Crown Fountain, (2004) to widely lauded photographer Barbara Kruger to native son and burgeoning art star Theaster Gates, the works offer a fresh perspective on the supposed values associated with black and white. The exhibition allows viewers the opportunity to contemplate how the works speak individually and cooperatively.
A work that I found quite provocative was Adam Brooks’ Strategy #1, (1990), which is a compilation of double-sided, black, industrially produced signage with white lettering that recalls office labels. Dispersed throughout the exhibition, the signs are not only one body of work, but in some ways also provide context for each section within Color Bind. Each side has one word and—depending upon the viewing angle—common euphemisms emerge, such as pyrrhic/victory, unnatural/bias, or groundless/criticism. Strategy #1, (1990) explores the complexity within the form and use of language and how its connotations can change by the simple addition of another term.
A key pairing of the exhibition, located within the entrance to the gallery, is Glenn Ligon’s White #11, (1994) and Imi Knoebel’s Untitled (Black Painting), (1990). Both works are approximately the same size, within the 48 x 72 inches range. Black envelopes the surfaces of both. Moreover, both pictorial planes feature specific markings that are representational of the artist’s interaction with, and purpose for, the canvas. They also display formal and informal qualities associated with abstractionism. Ligon, whose work is widely known for its basis in text, uses text in this painting to illustrate passages from an essay by Richard Dyer that explores representations of whiteness on film.
The surface of Knoebel’s work is waxy and appears to have been methodically scratched with some sort of sharpened instrument. The contrasting of these two works was very intriguing due to both their similarities and obvious differences. The color of the paint Ligon uses, its matte finish, and the repetitive overlaying of the text itself, combine to obscure the text and possibly allude to the murkiness of representation and identity within the mainstream. In Knoebel’s painting, purposeful markings mar the smooth surface, which, in Beckwith’s words, “invoke some sort of violent action.” One work, comments upon the cultural construct of whiteness by obscuring it in blackness, while the other work leaves viewers with remnants of a once—perfectly—tranquil surface that now bears the intense markings of its maker.
Another work displayed within the show is Adrian Pipers’ video/installation, Cornered, (1988). Although the artist could be mistaken for a white woman, she affirms her black identity. She also asks viewers if they have questioned their own racial identity and implores them to consider what they would do if they discovered that they have black ancestors. The video monitor is situated in a corner. An overturned table leaning against the pedestal base implies an upset in balance, yet the installation itself is, overall, very balanced. Moreover, directly in front of the work, a configuration of chairs in angled rows form a triangle, further emphasizing the notion of being “cornered”. Placed directly on each wall opposite of the video monitor are birth certificates of Piper’s father. One certificate identifies him as white while the other categorizes his ancestry as an octoroon or 1/8 black. This work is one of the more culturally based works within Color Bind; the work speaks to blackness and whiteness as social constructs and challenges the limitations of racial categorization. While Cornered, (1988) is over 20 years old, the work’s candid assertions and questions still resonate powerfully. Rudolf Stingel’s Untitled (after Sam), (2006) is a massive, large—than—life self-portrait and is impressive for its virtuosity. Painted in the photorealist style, the work could almost be a photograph. In fact, visitors could be seen leaning in for a closer look at the painting’s details once they realized that it was not a photograph. The emotional qualities conveyed by the piece—namely, despair and ennui—lend the work a quietness that is surprising despite its enormity.
Color Bind: The MCA Collection in Black and White was an intriguing presentation of the formal, metaphorical and cultural properties associated with a black and white palette. The various connections made throughout the exhibition were unexpected, prescient and at times challenging. Each work featured within the exhibition was dynamic in its own right, but together the show was an interesting mix of moods, thoughts and questions. Overall, Color Bind: The MCA Collection in Black and White reminds us that—while many of us may be, at times, on the opposite ends of the formal, metaphorical or socio-ideological spectrum concerning black and white—there is always room for more conversation. I look forward to seeing more exhibitions that reframe the context of the various works within the MCA’s vast collection, which would make viewers aware of the way in which the creation of a work and its meaning can be transient and, therefore, continuously in dialogue with its audience.
Color Bind: The MCA Collection in Black and White is on view through April 28th. For more information visit www.mcachicago.org.