I’m a sucker for a good exhibition. Dynamic pairings, and interesting ideas are EVERYTHING. If an exhibition can challenge the norm and re-contextualized familiar works to make new statements, even better. Black Pulp! may just be one of those shows.
Black Pulp! is curated by William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson. First shown at the Yale School of Art, the exhibition featured sixty-five objects from rare magazines and comics to work by contemporary artists. Black Pulp! told the story “of black and non-black artists and publishers working together over 90 years to draw attention to the black experience, rebuff Jim Crow politics, and refute racist caricatures.” Landing a new venue, the show has made it’s move to the International Print Center New York (IPCNY) in Manhattan.
I had a chance to connect with Will before this Saturday’s (October 1) opening and ask a few questions about their curatorial perspective. Here’s what he had so say:
JL: When asked about the exhibition, you stated that “The pulp attitude is to take the tragic and painful points of history, from Jim Crow to World War II, and challenge them through biting humor, satire, and wit.” Many curators take either an academic or stoic political position when approaching the black experience. Why did you take this position of employing or considering wit and humor when curating this show?
WV: First of all, I'm speaking here to the visual art itself employing "humor, satire and wit" and some, but not all of the literary work on display. The term pulp encompasses extremes such as drama, even melodrama. It is direct and emotional expression with often very clear positions. This is not a show about slapstick humor, minstrelsy or frivolity in any sense.
Myself and Mark have taken the exhibition of this difficult terrain precisely because it does not repeat back to us the simple talking points of the day. It is nuanced and sometimes problematic. It takes a keen viewer to parse through this form of address and be able to see the humor and the hard line critique. Our first question was how are artists employing "pulp' or satire/drama in relationship to historical realities and to what end. What we found was images necessarily employ strategies for speaking truth to power that are not possible in words. I'm thinking now about an NAACP poster from 1944 on display by Elton C. Fax which features a black fist choking a black crow – Jim Crow to be exact, as the poster explains, calling for a "wartime conference for total peace."
We understand the crow to be a symbol of oppression particularly towards Blacks in America that in Fax's poster is being equated with the atrocities of WWII and the Nazi regime. While Ollie Harrington's Dark Laughter comic strip on display from 1960 features two young Black boys passing a "whites only" sign at a restaurant as one exclaims how his father said they had no problem serving him during battle "...but they wasn't getting along so good with those Nazi's then!" There's a reason why Harrington called his strip Dark Laughter and not least of all was the pun on skin color. There is almost nothing darker that I can try to imagine than the history of the African American experience in America. Mark and I appreciate the levity and the seriousness that is held within the pulp expression. "How I got over" is not just a tune, but the real work of the Black press, writers and artists in this case working within popular media and offering up very relevant points of debate within and about Black experience and Black joy. Wit is the presence of levity and intelligence at the same time.
JL: How do you see the works included challenging the dominant cultural narrative? Do you see works by Alain Locke and Langston Hughes folding into what has become the new "traditional" cultural narrative around blackness? How does re-contextualizing the imagery in conjunction with contemporary work by Kerry James Marshall and others represent, reposition, or broaden the dialogue around the formers' work?
WV: The dominant cultural narrative around Black lives is oversimplified and has been for a long time. I literally stopped wearing hooded sweaters. Black folk are often mired in rhetoric of criminality, poverty, desperation and abuse. Of course Locke and Hughes were concerned with the same limited notions surrounding possibilities for Black people under Jim Crow. The real gains made since then during the Civil Rights era until today come with the long shadow of that historical and systematic oppression. As we open a National Museum of African American History and Culture we see yet more questionable police shootings of Blacks escalating. Its so hard to not think about that. This is what Stevie Wonder means when he sings "the joy inside my tears."
Black Pulp! however, was conceived of as a cross generational conversation that would highlight discussions within the Black community over time. While mammies and sambos are relevant to that conversation we did not want yet another show that overstates proportionally that aspect of our history as it is well covered territory. Indeed, what you find when you look beyond that is fairly surprising for the 1920's, yet sadly historically understated. Such as the publication Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists from 1926 which features illustrations and writing by Richard Bruce Nugent and openly gay Black man at the time writing a fictional story about prostitution in his short story "Cornelia the Crude." For that matter all of the short stories in Fire!! are edgy, broaching taboo subjects of their time. Along the same vein is Wallace Thurman's novel The Blacker the Berry (1929) which shook up Harlem elites by talking about color prejudice within the Black community. That's still a tough subject to broach today. If we are truly concerned about challenging monolithic and essentialist narratives of Black folk, these publications are a great way to begin thinking about that.
Putting these works in conversation with contemporary art shows us how relevant conversations and aesthetic traditions started during the Harlem Renaissance persist in our current moment in both fine art and popular media. We know that Kerry James Marshall's Rhythm Mastr in part speaks to the lack of popular Black superhero's, but do we know the very first Black superhero was a cowboy and escape slave named Lobo from 1965 made by white artists or for that matter that the first Black owned and penned comic was produced in 1947, "All Negro Comics." Marshall's "Dallies from Rhythm Mastr" on display are much more than they appear. The narrative specifically reflects back on the Harlem Renaissance era and Black history while also evoking a spiritual connectivity of African Americans to an African past – a conversation in visual arts started by Aaron Douglas over 80 years ago with his signature silhouetted figures featuring faces shaped like Congo masks. I'd add that they also make you laugh out loud– humor and intellect united! Art and artists do not exist completely outside of the larger culture so to look at the exchange of "high" and "low" forms gives us a richer story. It just happens that the most accessible and affordable medium for Black expression at large during the early part of the 20th century was in printed media. This form may be "poor" materially, but these publications contain the highest ideas, aspirations and creativity of Black folks while having the greatest potential for reaching that intended community.
JL: What piece do you absolutely love in the show? Why?
WV: That's difficult, but it would have to be the E. Simms Campbell illustrated editorial on "The Black Dances of the 1930's" from a vintage Esquire Magazine. The drawing of the dances such as the "shim sham" and "the break" are a lesson in draftsmanship. The figures move on the page. You can also see how those same dances are embedded in contemporary dance styles.
JL: Do you see curating as an extension of your creative practice? If so, why/how? If not, how do you see yourself in relationship to the tradition of curating?
WV: As an artist everything I do is an extension of my creative practice. Curating in particular allows me to investigate subjects that I am concerned with in my work from a different perspective. I can take the role of the archivist looking at source materials and influences with critically and objectivity. I think that it’s important for artists to think about the histories of the practices they are involved in and participate in how that narrative find itself in culture. You can call it curating, but I'm an artist first and as such Mark and I are participating in a long tradition of artists who have organized exhibitions and run galleries in an effort to think about under representation of subjects, materials and even other artists. Institutions large or small such as IPCNY add to this long history when they support artist based projects in curation as well as the production of objects.
In the New York Area on October 1? Attend the opening of Black Pulp! and experience it for yourself. Exhibitions that expand the discipline artistic and cultural investigation are important and necessary in what is traditionally a homologous discussion. When you go, tell me what you think! Share your thoughts here to expand the discussion.
About Black Pulp! at ICPNY:
Black Pulp! examines evolving perspectives of Black identity in American culture and history from 1912 to 2016 through contemporary works of art and rare historical printed media. The exhibition includes works by artists, graphic designers, and publishers in formats ranging from little known comic books to covers for historic books and magazines, to etchings, digital prints, drawings, and media-based works by some of today’s leading artists. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, extensive didactics, and free public programming.
The exhibition features contemporary works by an intergenerational group of 21 artists from the Black diaspora: Derrick Adams, Laylah Ali, Firelei Báez, Nayland Blake, Robert Colescott, Renee Cox, William Downs, Ellen Gallagher, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Lucia Hierro, Yashua Klos, Kerry James Marshall, Wangechi Mutu, Lamar Peterson, Pope.L, Kenny Rivero, Alexandria Smith, Felandus Thames, Hank Willis Thomas, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson.
Learn more about Black Pulp! including opening details here.
About William Villalongo:
William Villalongo was born in Florida, raised in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and now based in Brooklyn, New York. He received a B.F.A. in 1999 from Cooper Union and an M.F.A. in painting in 2001 from Tyler School of Art. An alumni of the well-respected Studio Museum in Harlem Artists in Residence Program. His layered and often sensorial paintings, prints and sculptures “appropriate iconic and not so iconic mass cultural imagery, with a base in African-American and American history and their respective vernacular,” using form, figure and mythology to expand the conversation of blackness. Villalongo is a recipient of both a Louis Comfort Tiffany Award and a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant. His work is included in several notable collections including the Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, and Princeton University Art Museum. He is currently a Lecturer at the Yale School of Art. Learn more about his work here.