30 Seconds Off An Inch at The Studio Museum

Chris Ofili, Shithead (1993), hair, elephant dung, copper wire and polyester resin, 8″ x 8″ x 8″; courtesy The Studio Museum in Harlem

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30 Seconds Off An Inch, a group exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem, takes its title from the artist David Hammons. Speaking about the role of craftsmanship in the black community, Hammons observed how “nothing fits, but everything works. The door closes, it keeps everything from coming through. But it doesn’t have that neatness about it, the way white people put things together.” Everything African Americans put their hands to, Hammons concludes, “is a 30 second of an inch off.”

Hammons’ sociological insight, such as it is, seems an odd inspiration given that curator Naomi Beckwith undergoes contortions in the attempt to broaden the received wisdom on contemporary African-American art. Writing in the catalog, she wonders what might happen “if we re-situate work by black artists within a history of art rather than a social history”? She frets that an emphasis on “overt political alliances and agendas” can scuttle aesthetic import. Beckwith is intent on pursuing the possibilities of art rather than limiting it to a “biopolitical ‘fact of blackness.’”

Not that she’s a fan of “color, line and form.” You have to wonder if Beckwith understands them at all, given how she links these attributes solely to abstraction—as if Raphael, Hiroshige and Barkley Hendricks had no truck with the stuff. Then again, Beckwith’s sense of history doesn’t encompass anything that can’t be lumped under the Conceptualist rubric; the Fluxus group, with its abiding belief that “anyone can make art,” is a recurring point of reference. In the end, Beckwith doesn’t escape the ideological straitjacket engendered by an aesthetic that encourages little more than heady self-aggrandizement.

The 42 artists featured at the Studio Museum are dependent, utterly and with numbing consistency, on the “social arena” Beckwith tries to elaborate upon, if not dispense with altogether. It has, she insists, been embedded within Simon Leigh’s plastic underpants, Jabu Arnell’s talking gas-mask and William Pope L’s blandishments about red and green people. But that assumes the artworks have a measure of autonomous get-up-and-go. They don’t: Each piece coasts on the assumption that intent, both strident and not, forgives a paucity of formal invention.

So what we get is this, that and the other thing—most of it contrived from junk that has been reclaimed but not transformed. Racial and sexual politics are touched upon in ways that won’t surprise, convert or shock anyone. But what to make of Kianja Strobert’s wine-stained scrap of canvas, Jabu Arnell’s cardboard-and-duct tape “disco balls,” a video of Adel Abdessemed drawing while hanging from a helicopter and Clifford Owens’ musings on failure, writing-as-drawing, wet panties and fucking famous artists? Presumably they’re expanding the parameters of art.

Oh, you think, that again. The curator’s protestations notwithstanding, 30 Seconds Off An Inch is a run-of-the-mill array of Conceptualist bric-a-brac. Would that there was, pace David Hammons, something in the slightest bit off at the Studio Museum. But these self-congratulatory iterations of over-intellectualized conceits are all right angles, snug joints and immaculate carpentry—and, as such, a bore.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 23, 2010 issue of City Arts.

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