Six painters contribute significant large-scale works to a dynamic group show comprising a range of aesthetics, styles and narrative strategies, all centered around representations of the male figure, especially men of color. In Disembodiment, curator Mariane Ibrahim is committed to an updated canon which recognizes that a universe of stories and styles exists, created by black artists, depicting people, that are nevertheless not engaged — or, not only — in a dialog on identity. Instead, or additionally, these artists are advancing a broad, diverse and robust conversation with the very notion of portraiture across art history and fine art technique.
Although there is a good deal of critical theory scrutinizing the fetishization and othering of black bodies in Western art, and also an active interest in works that unpack varieties of black experience, one thing that’s lacking is parity in the canon, and the institutions. In the portrait and genre, artists frequently take inspiration from moments in their own everyday lives —be they solemn or celebratory, public or private, sexualized or serene, folksy or fantastical. This part of art history has, unsurprisingly, been dominated by the lived experiences of white men. White male ideas — and white male bodies — are posited as the norm, anything else is othered, strange, the exception and that is that.
The quiet subversion of a show like Disembodiment is to privilege the black artist’s everyday body as a countercurrent to the status quo, and to examine the eclectic mannerisms of its authorship and expression on equal footing. Quiet not because the work itself is subdued; it is anything but. Rather, the show’s tactic is a quiet one: All the work possesses such presence, personality, advanced skill and distinctive voice that the fact of the painters all being black men — while remaining central — becomes, by curatorial design, incidental. It’s just some flat-out incredible contemporary studio painting, and it belongs in the art history books on the merits, and that right there is Ibrahim’s whole point.