Supposedly, we live in a "post-racial" era, spurred by the election of the country's first African-American president, but all we have to do is read or watch the news daily to understand that American culture has not attained a state of post-racial understanding and harmony.
The work in the exhibition "Singular Masses: An Examination of Racial Identity," showing through March 9 at the Hyde Gallery of the Memphis College of Art's Nesin Graduate Center, that comes closest to the post-racial position is Anthony Lee's "The Reclamation of Color," an expansive and witty play on paint samples and racist or other derogatory terms. On 20 large adhesive vinyl panels, the artist mimics the anodyne names on paint chips and their gradations of color by assigning such epithets to random hues with the intention of draining the original meanings from the terms, many of which seem almost quaint now.
"Singular Masses" was curated by Cat Peña, MCA's coordinator of exhibitions and lectures. The goal of the show, which includes the work of seven artists, four of them local, seems not so much to establish a "black identity" as to look at the stereotypes that surround the notions of black identity.
In Carl E, Moore's "The Black Female Gaze," for example, the canvas is dominated by the figure of a stereotypical African American woman, middle-age, slightly stout, arms folded across her chest, looking out from the picture with a steady, appraising and yet somehow motherly expression. The image encompasses a cliché that ranges from Sapphire on the "Amos 'n' Andy" radio and television broadcasts to the recent "Madea" movies in which Tyler Perry, a black man, impersonates a "sassy" elderly black woman, yet it also touches on the sociological truism that in the absence of the father, the black woman is the center of home and community.
On the other hand, Yashua Klos, in large woodblock-on-muslin prints of incredible virtuosity, establishes a sort of Mount Rushmore effect in the portraits of four black men who stand above the viewer and look skyward to achieve a solemn monumental stance that celebrates their individual and group identities. Equally virtuosic are Toyin Odutola's pen-and-ink-on-paper drawings that turn a black forearm and hand or the upper half of a head, with an explosion of hair, into rich, gorgeous typographical landscapes.
Local artist Lester Merriweather, whose work often conveys a welcome undercurrent of thoughtful rage, offers an intricate cut-paper collage on a large mirror whose glut of sensuous, gluttonous and consumer-based imagery involving beautiful white women and hapless black men conveys something of the atmosphere of a contemporary Hieronymous Bosch. Titled "Diante's Inferno (the Consumptables)" and perhaps referring, because of its basketball images, to Phoenix Suns point guard Diante Garrett, the hellish piece seems to present a cautionary allegory about fame and media and the temptations of materialism.