In curating ‘Ruffneck Constructivists’, a conceptually raucous display of sculpture, installation, performance, video and photography, artist Kara Walker shifts her focus from fictionalized psychological depictions of the antebellum south to the present moment. Her statement for the show references such divergent sources as the revolutionary Russian constructivist movement, F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909), Biggie Smalls’s track ‘Ten Crack Commandments’ (1997) and material related to architecture. The relationship between them more or less holds together, if you spend the time to conceptually connect the dots. While Marinetti’s manifesto contextualizes a nihilistic fascination with speed and abject recklessness, Biggie Smalls’s Ten Commandments are aphorisms for aspects of street conduct – a prescription for survival in the world of the drug trade. It’s a lifestyle viewed by society as reckless and which Biggie, in his short life, astutely chronicled. Both testaments are youthful observations made by men at different points in history.
This exhibition suggests that space is defined by social parameters: for instance, inner city residents make use of buildings in ways never considered by their builders, due primarily to overcrowding and lack of open spaces. In contrast, the car – especially for males – is a signature private place
where blasting music with pumped up bass announces a presence beyond the confines of the vehicle. Deana Lawson’s image Dirty South (2010) alludes to such a scene. The navigation of space and spatial relationships exists in a concrete way through the sculpture, installations and, to some extent, in the films presented. Yet, it is the body or inference thereof, such as in Rodney McMillian’s 2008 piece, Untitled (a chair with a huge, black, phallic pillar pushed through it) that defines space. The architectonic qualities of the human form, their placement and juxtaposition, are
the narrative; or, as architect Craig Wilkins puts it in his catalogue essay, ‘space is life’. Whether telling a story or making a commentary, albeit minimal or conceptual, these artists successfully divulge gothic romantic truths, as purveyors of other worlds possibly not their own.
But who or what is the subject here? The word ‘ruffnecks’ conjures all types of reference. To trace its etymological roots, it was a slang term used for carnival workers in the early 20th century, and subsequently to describe workers on oilrigs. Today the word has become synonymous with an urban street-smart man; the braggadocio swagger of the black male, the ’hood and hip hop culture.
The show loosely refers to an American urban subculture that is presumably black, and in which the rules of the game are embroiled in a street code. It includes 11 artists from Israel, Poland, South Africa and Middle America; are they merely interlopers in that scene, perhaps looking for source material in an attempt to be relevant or edgy? Or are they the new savants of the art world with their own form of pontificating and swagger? Take, for example, William Pope L., who has constructed his own quirky conceptual vocabulary based on an aesthetic of lack and frugality shaped partially by growing up black in Newark, New Jersey. Or Lawson, who constructs scenes or appropriates photographs of strangers, many of whom exist in liminal spaces of normalcy, whatever that means for her black subjects. A number of these artists expand their personal perspectives just enough to include a broader
audience, for which they serve as directors, social practitioners or cultural anthropologists.
Khalil Joseph – whose film Until the Quiet Comes (2012) was included here – makes magic realist films of black life, both urban and rural, that exude a raw beauty in the gesture, moods and expressions of his subjects. He captures the essence of the black body in motion as it floats and sways; even the blinking of an eye becomes an iconic cinematographic moment. For Stripped Bare (2009), Kendell Geers gives a new twist to Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), via a bullet-ridden glass windowpane suspended in the middle of the exhibition space. Israeli artist Lior Shvil makes a chaotic military obstacle course; a shack-like structure merging humour with implied violence and power. In Dineo Seshee Bopape’s rickety construction But That Is Not the Important Part of the Story (2013), made with wood beans, fans and sound equipment that emits a low hum, only the projected image of a similar structure ablaze really makes any sense of this piece.
I dare say that there have been previous collections of mostly black artists that were not labelled ‘black shows’. However, a little diversity serves as a filter beyond an absolute race-based point of departure, allowing for many nuances. Walker views this exhibition as a sketchbook of ideas; the fodder for further inquiry.