Black is Black ain't
THE RENAISSANCE SOCIETY
The University of Chicago, 5811 South Ellis Avenue, Cobb Hall #418
April 20–June 8
Taken from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, the title of the Renaissance Society’s current exhibition, “Black Is, Black Ain’t,” illuminates both the complexity of racial discourse and its continued necessity. Despite popular culture’s saturation with this kind of discussion, the exhibition asserts, American society hasn’t really come so far. “Black Is, Black Ain’t” presents the work of twenty-six artists who grapple with definitions of “blackness,” both challenging latent stereotypes and positing new interpretations. Recent decades have seen a shift in the rhetoric of race, from biological fact to cultural construction, and the exhibition builds on this change. By including black and nonblack artists, the concept is synthesized with other factors, such as class and gender, and in doing so, the historical contributions, cultural production, and irrevocable legacy underpinning conventional views of race are revealed. Virginia Nimarkoh’s Untitled #1 (After Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1988), 2001, which replicates a photorealist portrait by the German master, substitutes a young African-American woman for his daughter, inviting reconsideration of the determinability of an image and the way in which racial differentiation might shift the meaning of an icon otherwise unmodified. Paul D’Amato’s photograph of the now-demolished Cabrini Green housing projects along Chicago’s Division Street, 624 W. Division, 2007, is similarly subtle in the way it addresses gentrification: The gutted building is juxtaposed with the resurgent Chicago skyline, barely visible in the background. Other works, such as the untitled Polaroids in David Levinthal’s “Blackface” series, are more confrontational in their monumental depiction of enlarged, blatantly racist antique figurines. That the subjects of these images––objects seemingly out of sync with an era of political correctness––were likely produced within the past century reminds us of how quickly the rhetoric and cultural production of race fluctuates. Combining reinterpretation of the past with a critical view of the present, “Black Is, Black Ain’t” emphasizes the necessity of renegotiating race’s very definition by problematizing it as social fact and, ultimately, discouraging complicity in the way it is culturally produced and viewed.