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Three's Company

. . . but make curious bedfellows in this group show

Sanford Biggers' "Psyche"

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 12/2/2009

Intrinsic Trio: Joyce J. Scott, Sanford Biggers, Sam Gilliam

Through Dec. 22 at the Goya Contemporary

Sanford Biggers, Joyce J. Scott, and Sam Gilliam are all prominent African-American artists with connections to the Maryland Institute College of Art. Biggers studied at MICA, Scott studied at MICA and has worked in Baltimore for the past three decades, and Gilliam, who lives in Washington, has taught at MICA.

But the similarities quickly end. Biggers, 39, Scott, 61, and Gilliam, 76, are of different generations, work in different media, and bring to their work different sets of aesthetic and political problems. Biggers' video work, Scott's sculptures and prints, and Gilliam's textured paintings are individually compelling, but they don't sit well together at the Goya Contemporary's space in the Mill Center.

The title of the show--Intrinsic Trio--unintentionally, perhaps, draws attention to this problem. "Intrinsic" does not simply mean belonging to a group, it means belonging to a group as if an organism. In other words, the show, staged in connection with the third annual African-American Art Conference at MICA, implies that these three artists are inexorably African-American, and that it is impossible to separate their work from this identity and, in effect, each other.

As a result of this title and the ages of the artists, the show lends itself to being read temporally, with Gilliam representing the pre-civil rights era, Scott the civil rights movement itself, and Biggers the "post-racial" now. While curatorial statements are uncommon for gallery shows, here it might have been helpful to know more about the intent behind grouping these three artists together.

But the work in the show, almost all produced in the past year, is compelling because it shows how these three artists--all of whom engage in issues of race and identity in their work directly or, through shows such at this, in the museum or gallery spaces where their work is displayed--work through what it means to be an African-American artist.

Scott's sculptures and screen prints most vividly draw connections between race as lived experience and African-American art. Work from two series is represented here, and while the individual items are not placed together, their temporal relationship becomes clearer when considered as a whole. In the "From the Day After Rape Series," Scott uses a mixture of glass beads and everyday objects--crab claws, glass jars, thread--to represent both the physical experience and mental anguish of recovering from being raped. In "Gathering Water," Scott turns wooden pipes, a well-worn symbol of masculinity, into a woman's legs, at once sexualizing the objects and identifying the invisible male culprit of the crime, tying the piece to folk and outsider art without letting go of its art-historical influence.

In "From the Sexecution Series," Scott is working in a different medium--the screen print--and while she continues to explore the relationship between sexuality and suffering, this project is worked out as graphic, rather than intricate sculpture. The body of a woman is imposed over a Warhol-like print of an execution chamber. While the first scene is almost hopeful, as if it were the fantasy of someone about to be executed, by the last, when the woman has fallen off the lethal injunction bed and what could have been a window in the room is revealed to be a mirror, any possible fantasy is destroyed.

If Scott's work points toward particular ends and meanings, the multimedia pieces by Biggers are purposefully supple in their meanings. Biggers' "Ghettobird Tunic" is both a feathery coat object, one that would not be out of place in an anthropology exhibit, and a costume, which is worn for a performance piece. Although Biggers' own name (a nod to the Bigger Thomas character in Richard Wright's Native Son and to Redd Foxx's performance as Fred Sanford in Sanford and Son) is an amalgamation of black experience as represented on television shows and in high-school curricula, his work searches for other kinds of representation.

One of his two video pieces in the show, "Shuffle," incorporates scenes from Indonesia, as if Biggers is trying to demonstrate that the specificity of the African-American experience can be extended globally.

The three pieces from Sam Gilliam in the show are a bit out of place, as Gilliam's work does not pointedly address issues of African-American history or representation. Three three-dimensional, expressive pieces in this show are more sculptural than the color-field paintings for which he is best known, but when the pieces are presented with Scott's and Biggers' identity-based work it is difficult to know what to say about them. This might be the point of the show, that race is a performed identity rather than an intrinsic one. Maybe it takes a misleading title to enable us to draw that conclusion.

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