BY Frazer Ward in Reviews | 02 JAN 97
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Issue 32

Danny Tisdale

BY Frazer Ward in Reviews | 02 JAN 97

In The Black Museum, begun in 1990, Danny Tisdale exhibited, museum-style, products and packaging ­ from dashikis to hair straighteners ­ aimed at African-American consumers of the Black Power era. He covered fake copies of magazines like GQ, Interview and Archaeology with his own picture and eventually presented himself, on a pedestal, as an 'anthropological free agent'. Tisdale wittily located black identity at the intersection of various, often conflicting social discourses and practices, without fixing it to a particular position. The work combined critique with a Warholian fascination for consumer culture. The Warhol connection was explicit in 20th Century Black Men (1991), in which Tisdale repeated images of violence against black males, such as lynching and the beating of Rodney King, in the grid format of Warhol's Disaster series.

If Tisdale was critical of Warhol's use of images of race riots, he nevertheless seems to have absorbed something from the master of ambivalence. Entering this exhibition, you were confronted with a wall emblazoned with the exhibition's title and a political slogan ('Danny Tisdale: An Artist For a Change in New York City') and a photograph of the artist, flanked by the US and New York State flags. The cheesy but slightly ominous quality of this might have suggested that Tisdale was mimicking the reduction of electoral politics to the status of spectacular entertainment (failed entertainment, at that, as the US presidential election bears witness), an impression strengthened by the availability of 'Tisdale 96' baseball caps and T-shirts. In fact, the gallery served as, or represented, the 'campaign headquarters' for Tisdale's run for a seat on the Independence Party State Committee for Harlem. The exhibition included a series of photographs of events in Tisdale's political awakening (the Million Man March, a trip to North Africa); video documentation of 'Artist as Legislator' workshops, in which voters were interviewed about their political needs and wants; and 'The Danny Tisdale Library' ­ shelves of the books that inspired his political activity, including Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth and Colin Powell's My American Journey (for sale at $1,000 per shelf).

To return to the Warhol connection, the exhibition was pervaded by a dull sense of naiveté and self-promotional cunning. This was not dispelled by the news that during the run of the exhibition, Tisdale ­ already a member of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce and Harlem Community Board #10, and a delegate to something called the National Patriot Party Committee ­ was elected to the Independence Party State Committee (elected, that is, to a party position by registered party voters only). He will go on to face the electorate at large next year in an attempt to win a New York City Council seat.

This is not to say that naiveté and self-promotion are Tisdale's personal characteristics (he is clearly able to reflect critically and humorously on the process in which he's involved). But naiveté, at least, does not suit a political party ­ especially one that, according to the literature available in the gallery, seeks to develop through grassroots organisation a 'third force' intervention in the entrenched two-party system. The Independence Party, which makes rather vague play with the statistical importance of independent voters (not registered with either Democrats or Republicans), seems chiefly to want a series of reforms affecting campaign financing and general access to the political process. These are laudable goals, but they don't go much beyond rhetoric at least touched upon by members of both the main parties. Their presentation lacks not only a certain ideological distinction, but any sense of the history of third-party movements (whose ideas and members have commonly been absorbed by the dominant parties). The same might be said of Tisdale's Universal Art Platform (1996) ­ intended for, among other things, 'community decision making' and 'less government in our personal and private lives' ­ which has no necessary connection with art either.

At this point, the Warholian effect wears off. In the absence of a clear ideological position, the combination of the 'Independence Party' with the 'National Patriot Party' sounds scary. Together with a quotation on another wall from that arch romanticiser of 'the artist', Joseph Beuys, it all becomes a little murky.