"30 Americans" Uncovers America's Cultural Identity

MAM"s Compelling Contemporary Exhibition Celebrates Anniversary

Jun. 18, 2013
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In an exhibition that crystallizes the Rubell Family Collection’s (RFC) prodigious art holdings with prominent selections on display in one venue, “30 Americans” opens at the Milwaukee Art Museum this summer. And as the Museum’s Curator of American and Decorative Arts William Keyse Rudolph claims, “There are actually 31 American artists in the exhibition, the collector’s kept adding, and then kept the title identical.”

“This exhibition reads as a powerful survey of contemporary artinstallation, multi media, painting, photography, printmaking, and sculpturea full range of mediums that incorporate abstraction, minimalism, neon with new media and representation," Rudolph continues. “That [artwork] belongs to an ethnic color that has traditionally been marginalized...So this exhibition forces us to question identity.”

Identity, of skin color and culture, definitively underscores this exhibition. While African American artists might individually be any complexion color, shaded anywhere from a creamy white to black as burnished ebony, the artwork examines the ethnic group's unique history in this country, where other cultures or ethnicities might also ponder strong connections to their own past.

Kara Walker’s full wall of black paper silhouettes titled Camptown Races, (Stephen Foster’s famous minstrel song) toys with stereotypes of African American culture, music and literature, including a dark shadow of Brer Rabbit pointing a rifle, transforming the innocent animal illustrations into dangerous caricatures. Walker elevates this traditional art form popular in the 18th century through her monumental scale that seeks to confront all Americans with their past, the best and worst of the country’s racial legacy.  

Another room size installation by Gary Simmons incites a child’s game to devilish proportions in the work Duck, Duck, Noose. A circle of blond stained wooden stools are topped with white Klu Klux Klan hoods, upright and stiff. The ominous circle surrounds a hangman’s rope in the center. Once again, the artwork invites a historical memory recalling the lynchings of African Americans, kidnapped and killed after the Civil War that continued into the late 1970’s, based solely on class or skin color, which varies from light to dark shade colorations within every ethnicity. Simmons’ installation horrifically identifies one culture’s inhumanity to another, perhaps envisioning comparison to Mexican citizens that disappear from businesses and streets currently spoken of in the news,.

More serene, yet equaling imposing to the viewer, Untitled #25 by Leonardo Drew stands alone in one museum gallery similar to a contemporary minimalist sculpture. Elegant in the artwork’s simplicity, textural cotton bales stacked into an ivory wall needed to be placed by a precise numerical system through a collaborative effort of museum staff. The process required in this piece's installation whispers of America’s colonial past when cotton plantations represented striking class structures woven with prejudice and subhuman labor as tightly as the bales themselves.These cultural practices in other forms of slavery, sometimes seen in factories, still exist in countries around the globe.

Four of Nick Cave’s magnificent “Sound Suits” or lavish costumes often described as body art, resemble African ceremonial wear, created to be worn, equal components of performance and visual art. Closer study of Cave's meticulously conceived garments reveal delicate, exquisite forms, surface patterns and textures, whether constructed in beading, fabric, feathers or fur, a must see in the exhibition as numerous pieces can be called. 

Other artwork, including smaller pieces, images, paintings, photographs, sculptures or works on paper from the RFC collection impact the viewer to quietly emphasize, entice or emphatically challenge preconceived ideas of culture, history and the consequences of skin color. Multiple pieces add depth and nuance to this premise, and each has a compelling place in the exhibition. An attempt to define the subsequent question of identity, who a person really is, their character, underneath the skin’s surface. What an individual believes and practices regardless of what society names him or her, properly or in slang terminology, for their skin’s color, over which a person has no control.  

In the first Midwestern presentation of this exhibition, “30 Americans” adapts to each museum, where the images selected from the RFC change slightly. The MAM’s prestigious  “All American” display intensifies the institution’s celebration of their 125th anniversary in a provocative, contemporary and hip exhibition promoting cultural understanding in 2013. 

Because as the MAM’s visually potent “30 Americans” conclusively proves, peering underneath any person’s actual skin uncovers merely bones and a combination of basic chemical elements, exactly the same as another person, in every part of the world. And in this exhibition, regardless of an artist’s or viewer’s skin color, all people who live in this country could be invited to name themselves as American, regardless of their previous cultural identity.   

The Milwaukee Art Museum presents "30 Americans" in the Pleasant Rowland Gallery through September 8 and the complimentary exhibition "Wisconsin 30" in the Schroeder Galleria, which displays the work of the state's African American artists including Reginald Baylor, Trenton Baylor, Tyanna Buie, Sherry Kerry Harlan, Mutope J. Johnson, Evelyn Patricia Terry and Della Wells. Visit the exhibition when attending the Museum's Lakefront Festival of the Arts, June 21 through 23, one of the nation's premier outdoor art festivals. 






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