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Experiencing Tête-à-tête: An Engagement with Performative Processes and Black Identity

Derrick Adams. STATIC | DISTORTION | INTERFERENCE, 2011-2012. 27 x 60 inches, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, IL (Photo Credit: Image Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.)

Funky 70’s style decoratively patterned elements, intimate collaborative explorations, signifiers of black identity and femininity, fearlessness, and strong aesthetics are all terms that come to mind when thinking about the work of Mickalene Thomas. It was inevitable that her curatorial endeavor, tête-à-tête now on view at Rhona Hoffman Gallery would tackle some of those same conceptions and be equally as profound.

Tête-à-tête, an exhibition of photographic works by Derrick Adams, Jayson Keeling, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, Clifford Owens, Mahlot Sansosa, Malick Sidibe, Xaviera Simmons, Mickalene Thomas, and Hank Willis Thomas asks the viewer to engage in an extensive conversation surrounding notions of black identity and the body. The viewer is asked to consider the performative process that informs many of these photographs.

The selection of images for the exhibition is intentionally broad in both strategy and instruction ranging from Mickalene Thomas’ layered editorial Polaroid series; to Clifford Owens’ photographs that engage in a dialogue modifying our traditional perception of the male gaze; to the photographs of Zahali Muholi celebrating the lives of Black lesbian women in South Africa.

In the street-level gallery Mickalene Thomas’ “Polaroid Series” is exhibited, providing a glimpse into her creative process. Here we are confronted with a series of 3×4 inch photographs, demanding us to come closer and inspect. Memos written by hand indicate Mickalene’s thoughts about the outcome of the photograph. These Polaroid’s serve as documentation of the artist thoughts, female pose, and the surrounding environment.  They serve as a unique counterpart to her large C-print photographs and paintings.

The highlight of my experience was a work by Derrick Adams, who took a more conceptual approach to the theme by utilizing shadows and notions of projection. For this reason, I was captivated by Adams’ “Communication with Shadows,” in which he produced, magnified, and projected images of performance scenes from influential artists as a metaphorical means of cultivating intimate conversations. As I observed and photographed the work, I became aware of my shadow cast upon the glass. I became aware of my role in the conversation. By way of my existence in the gallery space and by way of my camera I became inserted into this communicative act. I became a participant. Each artist involved in the exhibition uses different tactics to pull the viewer into the work. The photographs subtly entice the viewer as if extending a personal invitation. With each photograph you are given the opportunity to engage in your own private conservation.

All things considered, Tête-à-tête is a beautifully curated show. Themes of projection, black identity, intimacy, discourse, collaboration, and performative processes run throughout this show.


On view now through May 5, 2012

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

118 North Peoria Street, Chicago, IL 60607

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