NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Back in the 1960s, some of us were taking drugs, scrambling genders and sampling global religions to shake ourselves loose from what we saw as Western-style binary thinking, a view of the world based on strictly held good-bad, right-wrong opposites: white versus Black, straight versus gay, us versus them. Five decades later, such thinking still rules in a red-blue nation, which makes the retrospective of Lorraine OGradys career at the Brooklyn Museum a major corrective event.
The artist flags her own resistance to either/or in the very title of her show: Lorraine OGrady: Both/And. As, over a long career shes now 86 she has consistently shaped her art on a different model, one of balanced back-and-forth pairings: personal and political; home and the world; anger and joy; rock-solid ideas and a light formal touch.
Although the shows organizers Catherine Morris, a senior curator at the museum; writer Aruna DSouza; and Jenée-Daria Strand, a curatorial assistant have braided her art through several galleries on four floors, were not in blockbuster country here. The bulk of this survey could probably be squeezed into a couple of carry-on suitcases. Most of her major works were one-off performances that survive now as photographs and handwritten notes.
Writing is an important element in her work. Her earliest project, dating from 1977 and marking her debut as a visual artist, is a set of collage-poems composed of phrases clipped from issues of The New York Times. Their presence, along with cases of archival material yellowing letters, lists, charts, statements makes the show a slowdown experience, a fiber-rich meal after a pandemic year favoring eye-candy online.
And her art is the product of a textured personal history, one with few straight-ahead lines. OGrady was born in Boston, the second daughter of Jamaican immigrants. She grew up in Roxbury, a neighborhood of newly arrived Black, Irish and Jewish populations, located just blocks from the citys main branch of the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts. As a kid, OGrady spent lots of time in both, with her early interest leaning toward literature.
After graduating from college, where she majored in economics and languages, she embarked on an episodically writing-centered career. She worked as a researcher and translator for the Labor Department in Washington, then moved to Europe to start a novel. In the early 1970s, she was in New York City contributing rock reviews to The Village Voice and teaching courses on Dada and surrealist writing at the School of Visual Arts. Hers was a distinctly both/and life, to which, in 1977, she added artmaking.
This began almost accidentally. After a medical procedure that year, she thanked her doctor with a gift of a homemade valentine: a multipage collage-poem of phrases she clipped from the Sunday New York Times. Then, for herself, over the next six months she made two dozen. Three of the originals are on the fourth-floor Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, where most of the show is installed. In this context, they seem emblematic of a life that was, to this point, itself a collage of interests and influences.
The next logical step was to introduce herself to the professional scene. What she encountered were levels of de facto segregation. The predominantly white mainstream art world had no time for her as a self-described Caribbean African American. The small, tightly knit, mostly male Black art world had little room for her as a woman. The white, middle-class feminist art movement granted entry but kept her at arms length.
Characteristically, her response was to strike out rather than retreat, and she did so through art: guerrilla-style performances in the persona of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middle Class), an aging but feisty and mouthy beauty queen who dressed in a gown stitched from formal white gloves and turned up, uninvited, at public art events.
In this guise, in 1980, she crashed an opening at Just Above Midtown, a Manhattan gallery with an all-Black roster, shouting Black art must take more risks! She followed this up with an appearance at the opening of an all-white show of performance art at the New Museum, where she challenged the institutions claim to be an alternative space and declared that an invasion was imminent.
Mlle Bourgeoise Noires white-glove gown is in the Brooklyn show, as is a series of photographs documenting her New Museum appearance. Radiating high outrage and sly humor, these now-classic gestures of Black feminist space-claiming feel years ahead of their time, as does a second major performance work a couple of years later.
In 1983, after being told by a colleague in the feminist movement that avant-garde art doesnt have anything to do with Black people, OGrady decided to demonstrate otherwise by participating in the Afro-American Day Parade in Harlem. For a performance piece titled Art Is ... she hired a float and performers to ride on it, each carrying an empty gilded picture frame. As the float made its way up Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, the performers descended into the street and invited spectators to pose for photographs within the frames, to be turned into art. The piece was a hit. People who had their portraits made were you can see it in photos exuberant. (And it is still a hit: It inspired a video produced by the 2020 Biden-Harris campaign.)
OGrady was on the float, too, smiling, watching this very public work of conceptual art unfold. My favorite of her performance pieces, though, dates from a year earlier, and was more private. Titled, Rivers, First Draft, or The Woman in Red, its a kind of semi-autobiographical Pilgrims Progress. Staged on a summer day, in a remote corner of Central Park, the piece symbolically reenacts scenes from the artists life. An actor all dressed in white plays her aloof, impeccable mother; another plays OGrady as a dreamy, bookish child. And the artist, dressed in passion-red, plays a version of her changing adult self. Traumas are enacted romantic losses, political clashes, even a rape but the narrative, paced like a medieval mystery play and captured in 48 color photographs, ends with a ritualistic wade through healing waters and what feels like a state of peace.
Family is this artists recurrent subject. And Miscegenated Family Album (1980/1994), maybe her most familiar work, is made up of paired images of two of them: Queen Nefertiti and her children depicted in 18th-dynasty sculptures, and OGradys older sister, Devonia, who died in 1962, leaving children behind, as seen in family photos.
On display in the museums third-floor Ancient Egyptian Art galleries, the piece is a meditation on human connections sisterhood, motherhood, aging across time. But its also about an undying history of racism: Western historians have traditionally viewed ancient Egyptian culture as too Classical/white to be African, and too African/Black to be European. OGrady and her biracial Jamaican-Boston family are assigned to a similar limbo, left floating among identities African, American, African American, Caribbean without being anchored in any one in an either/or world.
The fact that they participate in all these identities, and that that is a source of their beauty and strength, seems to be the message of the shows single video, Landscape (Western/Hemisphere), made in 2010/2011. Installed on the Arts of the Americas galleries on the fifth floor and set between grand, land-grabbing New World vista paintings by Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, the video looks at first to be a continuous image of dense, rustling foliage. In fact, its a close-up shot of OGradys mixed-race hair, to borrow DSouzas description in the catalog. With its shades and colors dark and light and its textures curled and straight, its an embodied example of both/and.
In addition to being the retrospectives co-curator, DSouza is editor of Lorraine OGrady: Writing in Space, 1973-2019, a book of the artists writings published by Duke University last year. Its an absorbing cover-to-cover read, no surprise considering the artists roots in literature. And the dates of its contents and those of the works in Brooklyn pretty much coincide, with the exception of the shows most recent piece.
Titled Announcement of a New Persona (Performances to Come!), and dated 2020, its a photographic series featuring the artist herself in the guise of a knight errant entirely indeed, invisibly encased in a suit of medieval-style armor on the third floor. Does the armor signal readiness for battle or self-protective retreat? You see it and think conquistador (bad), until you spot a miniature palm tree (good) sprouting from the helmet, suggesting her Caribbean/Jamaican heritage. Precise meanings, like the promised performances, have yet to be revealed. But clearly, something both/and is up, conceived with the moral acuity, wit and humane gallantry that have always marked the standard this artist carries into the field.
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