“You got all the power,” Sister Gertrude Morgan, the self-taught artist and evangelist from New Orleans, sang in 1970. “Lord, [I’m] trusting in you.” Then she started chanting, shaking her tambourine at an insistent pace: “Power, power Lord, power, power, power.”
Morgan recorded the song, which she wrote just three years before God told her to stop making her illustrative, gratifyingly dense, and loose paintings of Biblical scenes; God wanted her to focus just on preaching, she believed. A few of her paintings, including a pastel-colored one of Jesus blessing children, appeared in “Power,” a recent show at Sprüth Magers Los Angeles that took its name from her song and surveyed the work of 37 African-American women from the 19th century to the present. The show, curated by the art advisor Todd Levin, who is white, included truly exquisite, intelligent, and provocative work. It also bordered on offensive in the way it aestheticized and equated the art of more than five generations of women, glossing over their diverse interests and their wide range of backgrounds in an unsettling effort to be surface-level poignant and visually pleasing.
Right when you entered the main downstairs gallery, you encountered a manufactured scene of devotion. L.A.–based Karon Davis’s sculpture Mawu (2016), a plaster girl in a flowing dress surrounded by Kleenex, looked up at Renee Cox’s It Shall Be Named (1994), an assemblage of 11 photographs of a black man’s distorted, anguished body. The photographs make up the shape of a cross, and so they conjure crucifixion but also lynching. Davis’s Mawu, a sad, expectant figure, now seemed to be worshipping at the base of Cox’s violently sacrilegious work as the result of a sappy curatorial choice that pulled two sculptures made a generation apart into a narrative neither artist intended. (Davis made her work after the death of her husband, for an exhibition that probed love and loss; Cox was intentionally questioning Eurocentric notions of persecution.)
Levin made moves like this throughout the show. Around the corner from the Davis and Cox debacle hung a monitor on which Escaped Lunatics (2010–11), a rhythmic, charged video by Brooklyn-based Steffani Jamison looped. Male figures run through Houston in the piece, a black man first, then two white men and another black man. It’s either a chase or a group escape—perhaps they’re all fleeing authorities, or a dangerous rival. They jump fences and cross unkempt lawns in unnecessarily impressive ways (back-flipping, somersaulting). Hanging right next to the monitor, so that it literally overlaps the screen, was Renee Stout’s Strange Oracle (2001), an assemblage centered on a found wooden figure embellished with beads and surrounded by human teeth. Stout, who is 23 years Jemison’s senior and interested in folk belief and hoodoo, may be exploring loosely similar ideas, and the works could both be described as being about ritual, but their proximity seemed more motivated by visual contrast, the old, found, and folk juxtaposing the sleek and digital.
Upstairs, the juxtapositions became even more uncomfortable. A plaster bust by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, the sculptor and poet born only 13 years after the Civil War ended, watched Sondra Perry’s 2010 video Black Girl as a Landscape, its pedestal set up to directly face the digital projection. Are the works supposed to be having a multi-generational moment of mutual admiration? Perhaps Warrick Fuller’s Bust of a Freedman is meant to be marveling at how far we’ve come, admiring Perry’s digital poeticisms. Or perhaps she’s mourning the fact that objectification of black female bodies remains a relevant subject.
Then there was the odd side room devoted to Ralph DeLuca’s archive of African-American vernacular photography taken between 1900 and 1940—only certain photos were credited, and all had captions like “beautifully dressed and composed young woman” or “powerful portrait of woman beneath crossed flags.” (Some were added by the collector, others were likely on the back of the photos when he acquired them.) DeLuca, a white man who is a client of a friend of the curator and who primarily collects valuable movie posters, posted on Instagram about his collection’s inclusion in “Power.” “So excited” and “so proud of your accomplishments,” one of his followers said, which is worth noting because the enthusiasm of these comments emphasizes the absurdity of a situation in which a white man’s pastime somehow became central to a show of powerful African-American women artists.
A tasteful, small brown paper catalogue accompanied the exhibition. It includes an essay by doctoral candidate Andrianna Campbell followed by responses from many of the show’s artists to a leading question Campbell posed: “Why do exhibitions that are organized around identity continue to be important in our day and age?” Despite the perversity of asking the artists to justify a problematically curated exhibition, most of these incisive, thoughtful makers manage to complicate the show’s premises. “I have to begin by saying that all exhibitions are organized around Identity, all of them, as long as we accept the fact that Whiteness is an identity, which it clearly is,” writes Xaviera Simmons, who contributed to the show a self-portrait of herself fishing in a rural stream wearing a long patterned dress, her flowery femininity unexpected in this rugged outdoor environment but also at home with itself against an epic Colorado landscape. Her writing continues on for four penetrating pages, connecting the still-ongoing systemic oppression of African-Americans to the continuing inequality and segregation of the cultural industry.
We need shows that challenge that segregation and give real space to the female artists featured here, most of whom are critically, sensually engaged with the cultural realities of a deeply unequal world. Perhaps there could even be a show that includes this same sprawling group of artists, but one that allows their work the physical and conceptual autonomy to convey its own meaning. “Power” was not that show.
[A letter to the editor in response to this review, by Andrianna Campbell, was published on July 12.]