In his second solo exhibition at Invisible-Exports, “Hard & Fast,” Clifford Owens shared the stage with a host of contemporary artists, showcasing performances, paintings, and sculptures by others that he responded to in various ways. His ongoing desire to pursue collaborative models of artistic production and emphasize the primacy of the body underscored this exhibition, as it did Anthology (2011), his well-known performance at MoMA PS1.
Anthology, inspired by 1960s Fluxus event scores and the body-based endurance works that followed, redressed the elision of seminal contributions by African-American artists from the canon—Ben Patterson, Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, and Sherman Fleming among them. Owens invited these artists and more famous figures like Kara Walker, William Pope.L, and Glenn Ligon to submit scores for him to perform. Providing written instructions, diagrams, and musical notation, the scores were alternately mundane (Nengundi’s Sweep) and incendiary (Walker’s imperative to “French kiss an audience member. Force them against a wall and demand sex.”). Most required interaction with viewers and engaged issues of race; William Pope.L addressed the notion of blackness itself (“Be African-American. Be very African-American.”).
In the Invisible-Exports exhibition, references to Anthology were made in a powerful series of performances by young black female artists that Owens curated to launch the show. Pope.L’s score was invoked by Rashayla Marie Brown, for example, who wove it into an incantation, “I’m afraid I’ll be forgotten,” as she pretended to call her ancestors on her phone to assuage her fear. Another highlight was Marisa Williamson’s performance After Kara Walker/Before Clifford Owens, which involved a game of charades led by the artist’s antebellum persona; one of the pantomimes acted out was the title of Walker’s 2007–08 traveling museum survey, “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.” Owens’s role in the performances was minimal. After each concluded, he quietly photographed the standing audience, arranging members in the center of the gallery or capturing individuals in close-up as they crowded against the wall. A selection of the resulting images, which were surprisingly theatrical, were presented in the gallery’s back room.
The main gallery contained works (all 2016) that Owens asked David Choi, Andy Cross, David Hammons, Matthew Day Jackson, Rashid Johnson, and Eric Mack to make for him to modify or alter. Owens’s contributions ranged from filling the small negative spaces of a geometric sculpture by Choi with Vaseline to creating a large-scale photograph in which two outlines of his body, drawn with a flashlight and captured through multiple exposures, flank a black-and-white photogram by Jackson of another bodily imprint.
Like the photographic documents that were conceived as “reaction” performances, thus turning the audience into participants (however unwittingly), the line where one artist’s work ends and Owens’s begins was deliberately blurred. In this sense, the artist’s overriding agenda to revise the canon was well served. More than simply expanding the scope of who is included, the show offered a contrary model, one in which authorship becomes collective and fluid rather than being singular and discrete. It isn’t a new model, but Owens’s decision to embody it in a solo exhibition was laudable, and an act of subversive generosity.