‘Ruffneck Constructivists’ at Institute of Contemporary Art


Not surprisingly, artists often prove to be original, insightful curators. This turns out to be especially true of Kara Walker, who has raised the bar for curating with this exhibition of work by eleven artists. The show asserts a parallel between various radical art movements of the early 20th century, with their rigorous rethinking of built and social environments, and contemporary art that addresses urbanism and racial identity in similarly outspoken (albeit less utopian and more streetwise) terms.

Tim Portlock, Sunrise-the extended constructivists re-render, 2013, archival pigment print. COURTESY INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART.

Tim Portlock, Sunrise-the extended constructivists re-render, 2013, archival pigment print.


To propose a relationship between Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments,” and F. T. Marinetti’s 1909 “Futurist Manifesto,” as Walker does in her gallery notes, seems a farfetched pairing of philosophies at first. But as it turns out, Walker’s comparison of Futurism’s uncompromising dictums to the anarchic set-ups and strategies of the artists in the exhibition isn’t such a stretch. As Walker states in her essay, “Ruffnecks go hard when all around them they see weakness, softness, compromise, sermonizing, poverty, and lack; they don’t change the world through conscious actions, instead they build themselves into the world one assault at a time.”

There are numerous assaults, both literal and figurative, to be found here, in a selection of art that is fairly evenly divided among video, photography, sculpture, and installation. Painting did not make the cut, though works by such artists as Mark Bradford or Ellen Gallagher would not have been out of place. Video makes the strongest impression. Deshotten1.0, a 2009 film by Malik Sayeed and Arthur Jafa, offers a frankly terrifying account of the shooting of a black youth and the victim’s subsequent vulnerability in an unguarded hospital room, where a stream of visitors comes to see him. Kahlil Joseph’s fast-paced, fragmented music video for Shabazz Palaces’s album “Black Up” (2011) and haunting short film Until the Quiet Comes (2012) for the Flying Lotus song by the same name—in which, among other scenes, a zombielike figure wanders through a housing project, invisible to the tenants—examine the urban black experience through a more surreal lens, but with a similar bleakness.

Other heavy-hitting works include Jennie C. Jones’s Silent Clusterfuck (bianca), 2013, a wall-mounted hanging sculpture composed of tangled earbuds, which summons thoughts of lynchings; Rodney McMillian’s Carpet (Office and Ollie’s Room), 2012, a large wall-hanging made of grimy used carpeting cut to fit a long-vanished room; and William Pope.L’s Claim (2014), a bizarre wall installation of slices of bologna mounted in a grid. Glued to each slice is a photograph of a Philadelphia citizen; the collection purportedly represents 1 per- cent of the total number of Jewish people in the city. The work that articulates Walker’s hypothesis most clearly, though, is Tim Portlock’s photograph of a ravaged North Philadelphia neighborhood at sunrise. The picture has been made to look even more dystopian through the use of the same 3-D imaging technology employed by video-game designers. Still, it’s an immediately recognizable scene, and that is its most disturbing quality.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 102.

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