Are African-American fine artists today free from pressures to perform in specifically (but “acceptably”) “black” ways, as determined by a mostly white audience? According to the critique implicit in Devin Troy Strother’s impressive exhibition of new paintings and sculptures (all 2014), the answer is no. The work isn’t Strother’s most rigorous, but it is his boldest: “I’ll give you your performance,” it seems to shout, “but it won’t be comfortable.”
Titled “Space Jam,” the exhibition partly took its name from the 1996 film starring Michael Jordan in which the basketball legend and an animated Looney Tunes cast compete to avoid enslavement by an alien race. Miniature, cartoonlike painted cutouts of Jordan appear on many of the paintings’ surfaces, usually stuck to a colorful, straight-from-the-tube smear that trails him like he’s a slam-dunking comet. For other paintings, Strother enlarges images of Jordan from what were probably basketball cards or fanboy posters and uses them as backgrounds for his Jordan cutouts and acrylics.
The young Los Angeles-based artist’s new paintings are larger, brighter and filled with more art historical references than his previous works. I got a Joan Miro all over my brand new holograms offers Miró-like shapes atop a panel of holographic mylar, the latter a nod to the hologram basketball cards that were popular in the ’90s. Devin Troy Strother x Rob Pruitt x Cory Arcangel x Walead Beshty x A Sad Face x 3 Michael Jordans is a color gradient slathered with impasto acrylic that crudely resembles eyes and a frowning mouth, bedecked with three Jordan cutouts.
Strother’s work usually deals with themes of stereotyping and cultural coding—specifically regarding the language and imagery of African-American culture. Despite the obvious affection Strother has for ’90s basketball aesthetics, his critique outstrips any nostalgic underpinnings: it’s no small irony that Jordan, one of the most famous men on earth, was performing for his freedom in Space Jam, and Strother’s work has always underscored the art world’s oppressive demand that black artists, like athletes, perform in specifically “black” ways to earn legitimacy. By co-opting such caricatures and throwing them back at his audience, Strother forces viewers to acknowledge their complicity.
But “Space Jam” isn’t just a referential conceit; it’s also a description. As press material explains, the title puns on Strother’s need to jam (or work quickly) to fill Marlborough Chelsea’s cavernous gallery space with new work.
Perhaps out of haste, Strother sometimes jams too many references into his work too haphazardly. Five 9-foot-tall, glossy black monoliths stood around one room whose floor was painted like a basketball court. Press material mentions that these pieces reference both basketball players and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. They were also intended as pedestals; upon them rested cast-bronze sculptures, including several of deflated basketballs. But so many metaphors get muddled. (Do we put our heroes on pedestals, or are they the pedestals? The reference to 2001, an otherwise unrelated space movie, clouds things further.) On their own, the basketballs are perfect. How many children have had the air let out of their golden, inflated hoop dreams?
Much of the writing about Strother’s work seems fixated on his titles, which is as avoidable as it is unfortunate; such criticism easily becomes an act of merely taking inventory. (He cites Richter, but where’s Tony Smith?) That’s largely Strother’s own fault: they’re his titles, and all that name-checking, however humorous, invites that kind of lazy scrutiny. But the art objects offer plenty of rich material for deeper aesthetic and sociocultural analysis. Criticism will almost always take the easy route if you point the way.