Friday, December 3, 2010

Slap that Stereotype...Hard!











Jonathan Hicks’ “Kill Dat Stereotype”, on display at Birmingham’s Roam Projects, highlights the challenges young artists face as they explore complex ideas from a range of directions, each time, hopefully, aiming at the same target.

For those familiar with Birmingham’s gallery scene, the works in “Kill Dat Stereotype” have been exhibited before, but never as a group and never with an overarching conceptual context.

From the outset, let me say that I appreciate Hicks’ works. Some more than others, and some, more problematically than others. Perhaps the biggest difficulty any critic today faces, or even anyone writing on contemporary culture, is that the overarching signifiers – “blackness”, “whiteness”, “queerness”, for example – each create such a loaded discourse that critical engagement becomes problematic at best, impossible at worst. At its best, it teeters on the apologistic, at its worst, on its perceived insensitivity.

With this in mind, as a mid-forties, middle-class, educated, white male, I will consider “Kill Dat Stereotype” not so much in terms of its authenticity of ‘blackness’ or the black experience, but from the perspective of its consistency, its capacity to convey meaning, to emote, and to express.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Hicks faces is that, like many young African-American artists, there is no clear distinction between pieces that are about identity and pieces that assert identity. The casual spectator then simply lumps everything into work about the black experience, and moves on.

I’m not sure, also, whether Hicks is really killing dat stereotype, or in fact using it to reinforce his assertion of its existence. Most powerful are the images in which he washes the blackface off himself, only to reveal the fact that he himself is black, calling to mind the uncertainty of William Faulkner’s “Light in August” where Joel Christmas’ ‘blackness’ is always oscillating, always waiting to be defined, always something to be moved away from.

So when Hicks photographs himself, hooded, in fabrics reminiscent of African tapestries, with a noose around his neck, it is as if he is asserting the history of black consciousness, but maybe not necessarily moving its discourse forward. Here, Hicks himself is passive, almost as if he is enslaved. Is he enslaved by the history of the black experience? Is he enslaved by a creative process that compels him to remain precisely within this dialogue? Does the discourse become simply self-reflective? These are all issues that Kill Dat Stereotype seeks to address, but somehow what we become left with are beautiful images that are in danger of being overwhelmed by their own technical artistry.

Several years ago Hicks regaled me with stories of nighttime jaunts across Birmingham, Alabama, roommate in tow, stopping to photograph said roommate, nude, with a noose around his neck, in locations public and private. Somehow, the odd juxtaposition of black man photographing black subject contemplating horrific black experience publicly in Birmingham, Alabama, provided these images with an immediacy and an unnerving quality that Kill Dat Stereotype may lack. It is not a question of better or worse, but merely a question of external versus internal, of trying to represent a cultural experience versus trying to explore a personal one.

I think this is where Jonathan Hicks is now, exploring the chasm that can exist between the two. I am not sure he, or anyone, can necessarily Kill Dat Stereotype. I think he might give it a good left hook, go crunk on it, give it a bitchslap, knock it down…but it is the person who perpetuates the stereotype, not the person who it represents, who is the only one who can kill it.

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