At Tuesday night’s preview of 30 Americans, a representative of the Corcoran told the story of how, in 1940, a young, female, African-American artist secretly entered a contest held by the gallery, sending a white friend to drop off the painting because she feared she would not be allowed past the building’s grand front stairs because of the color of her skin. Lois Mailou Jones won the contest and had the prize mailed to her so she would never have to show her face.
Seventy-one years later, Ms. Jones’ painting is held in the Corcoran’s permanent collection and the gallery is hosting a powerful exhibit of contemporary African-American artists which has already generated tremendous excitement in advance of the October 1st public opening.
One of the most-anticipated openings hitting the walls of DC galleries (in a season that is proving to be crowded with buzzed-over exhibits), 30 Americans brings together three decades of influential African-American artists, both household name and lesser-known, in a variety of media. The principle by which they are organized is that all seventy-six works on display (by, in fact, thirty-one American artists) grapple with the concept of identity – particularly but not exclusively race – in modern American life.
Walking through the exhibit one gets a real sense of continuity from the pieces, though they are diverse in aesthetic and medium, and span roughly two generations in time – from grim and gritty images recording segregation and lynchings, to glossy, high-definition challenges to role of the popular media and commercialization on our personal and public images today. Throughout, the artists are forthright and direct with the viewer, fully living the motto of this exhibition, “Say It Loud.” These works are carefully chosen to be provocative and important, yet with a kind of accessibility that should engage a broad audience.
Kehinde Wiley’s large-scale and distinctive portraits, prominent in this exhibit, will be instantly recognizable to DC audiences from his 2008 showing in The National Portrait Gallery’s RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture. His painting “Sleep” has become perhaps the signature image of 30 Americans and exerts a kind of gravitational pull as the crowd trickles through the rooms and pools up in front of the massive work. At almost eight meters long it engulfs the viewer and painted with a quality that makes it seem to glow right off the wall.
Mr. Wiley who attended the exhibit opening – in one of his fabulous signature suits, of course – will be staying in Washington through Friday for a special event called Rebirth of the Cool. Open to the public ($35) this event at Capitol Skyline’s famous pool is a take on the artist’s Art Basel Miami fish fry party.
Much effort has clearly gone in to planning the many other events around the exhibit, focused on education and outreach. Among the film screenings and lectures, of particular note is an evening of conversation with Washington, DC native iona rozeal brown and Shinique Smith of Baltimore on the topic of the role of community in an artist’s process and output.
30 Americans will be on exhibit from October 1st to February 12th, and dated tickets are available for advance sale online. Additional details are on the Corcoran’s web site. There is always the knee-jerk response in Washington to balk at paying anything to see an exhibit, but this is worth your money – this is truly essential viewing and not to be missed.