"Radical Presence" opens at the Walker Art Center


"Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art," an exhibit that looks at the role of African American performance artists in contemporary art, opens at the Walker Art Center tonight. Minneapolis is the third and final stop for the show, which was hosted by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 2012 and then was co-presented in New York City by the Studio Museum in Harlem and New York University's Grey Art Gallery. Packed with archival photographs, video, and objects used in performance, the exhibition will also feature a number of events throughout the course of its run, starting tonight and this Saturday. 

[jump] African-American artists have been creating performance art, the practice of performance conducted in a visual-arts context, since the concept emerged in the 1960s, but Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, says that there's been a lack of acknowledgement of their contributions. "Radical Presence" is the first major exhibition that looks at the history of African American performance in art, and she hopes that it will lead to more attention given to the subject. 

Cassel Oliver differentiates performance art from theater, music, or dance in that with performance art, there's always visual objects either used in the performance or created as documentation of the performance event. African American performance artists, like other performance artists, have often worked in various disciplines, using "a hybrid way of working," she says. Their performances have had visual applications or elements where the object has been the primary element. "There's always forethought to the object left behind," she says. 
In addition, black performance artists "don't use the trappings of theater," she says. Instead, they often go out into the world to create the performance. For example, in the exhibit there are photographs of Lorraine O'Grady's Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire, performed from 1980 to 1983, where O'Grady would wear a dress made of 180 white gloves, paired with a beauty-contestant tiara and sash and show up unannounced at high profile art events. There are also photographs of O'Grady's performance Art Is, where she took a picture frame to the African American Day Parade in New York City in 1983 and placed it around the faces of people she passed. In both works, O'Grady places criticism on the contemporary art world in its exclusion of people of color. 

The show also looks at how we define performance art, especially in the internet age. Cassel Oliver chooses to include Jayson Musson's Hennessy Youngman's Art Thoughtz series, which was created from 2010 to 2012 and posted on YouTube. Musson's tongue-in-cheek commentary on art institutions (he sells an MFA on DVD for $4.99) serve as an example of digital performance art. Its inclusion in the show speaks to the new and ever changing ways performance artists choose to express their work. 
Fionn Meade, the Walker's senior curator of cross-disciplinary platforms, helped coordinate the show's iteration at the Walker. He believes "Radical Presence" shares a nice crossover with "Art Expanded: 1958-1978," which opened earlier this summer and features many early performance artists, including Fluxus artist Ben Patterson, whose work can be seen in both exhibits. Meade believes that the Walker's galleries permit breathing room for the works, allowing some moments to have a bit more space around them. You can see this especially in Pope. L's Costume Made of Nothing (2012-2014), which will be animated by a performer at the opening event tonight. The piece includes a hole in a wall, into which the performer places his arm, so it looks like it has disappeared. Rather than simply displaying the one side of the wall, the Walker's display of the piece allows you to see the contraption on the other side as well, giving an inside look at how the piece is created. 

In addition to Pope L's work, the opening-night performances will include a sound piece made in homage to Terry Adkins that uses four 18-foot-long brass horns played by local musicians; Senga Nengudi's Untitled (RSVP)(2013), where performer Maren Hassinger stretches nylon stockings filled with sand through choreographed movements; and Jacolby Satterwhite's Orifice (2010-2012), where the artist will perform in his military cyborg body suit. 

This Saturday at 1 p.m., Jamal Cyrus will perform Texas Fried Tenor (2012), where he demonstrates how to bread and deep-fry a saxophone. An hour later, there's a panel discussion with Cassel Oliver along with artists Adam Pendleton, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Xaviera Simmons. At 4 p.m., Maren Hassinger will perform in the galleries. 

Later on this year, Benjamin Patterson will perform his participatory piece Pond (1962); Coco Fusco will  give a lecture, as Dr. Zira from the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes, on economic violence from an evolutionary perspective; and Trenton Doyle Hancock will perform.  

Additionally, Theaster Gates's See, Sit, Sup, Sip Sing: Holding Court, a work that invites people to gather around a large classroom table to exchange ideas, will be ongoing throughout the run. The Walker will be holding meetings at the table, and invite others to use it as well as a place for thoughts and ideas. The table will also travel to Juxtaposition Arts in Minneapolis for a concurrent satellite program. 


"Radical Presence"

Walker Art Center

Through January 4, 2015

The opening reception is 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, July 24