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A Sense of Self

“Singular Masses” at MCA’s downtown Hyde Gallery.

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The current exhibition in the Hyde Gallery at the Memphis College of Art Nesin Graduate School is "Singular Masses: An Examination of Racial Identity." After last year's "Facts, Fictions, Figures," this is the second year in a row that the Hyde Gallery has hosted an exhibition in February that examines racial stereotypes and blackness to coincide with Black History Month.

In relative terms, the Civil War was not that long ago. More recent still were the end of Jim Crow and the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Civil Rights Act happened when my generation's parents were teenagers, some starting their families. There has been remarkable progress, but there are also constant reminders of our horrible history of race relations. Mississippi just got around to ratifying the 13th Amendment, and need I mention the KKK march planned in Memphis for the end of the month? Stars and bars, baby.

This is why exhibitions such as these at the Hyde Gallery are important, why the work these seven artists are doing is so important. But group exhibitions like "Singular Masses" can be tricky, especially when addressing such a significant theme. There is nothing that particularly addresses the issue of racial identity in this exhibition except that the artists and/or their subject matter is the African-American self.

There are two notable exceptions in the work of Lester Merriweather (who was included in last year's exhibition) and Anthony Lee, both Memphis artists.

Merriweather's A Brand New Fresh Memorial (Just in Case Another Young Black Child is Murdered) is not only the best piece of the exhibition, but also speaks the most to racial identity. The piece consists of numerous stuffed animals strapped to one of the large columns in the gallery. Stuffed animals are affixed to telephone poles as memorials for recently lost loved ones, victims of murder, drugs, and gun violence. Unfortunately, these monuments serve as a reminder of the difficulties many residents of Memphis have to endure.

Anthony Lee's The Reclamation of Color consists of 20 large-scale house-paint color samples similar to those found at any Lowe's or Home Depot. Each panel is made from a vinyl material called sintra, which is normally used in retail and grocery displays. At the top right corner of each panel is a sticker with a stereotypically racial slur — halfbreed, chink, kike, redneck, wetback, etc. Each slur is not necessarily matched with the racial color it is normally attributed to. It's a reminder of how effortlessly and casually we use these offensive terms each day.

In an effort to give the piece a painterly feel, Lee applied heavy brush strokes of acrylic paint to each panel. The brushstrokes give it a handmade quality and take away the dehumanizing effect of the slurs, especially considering how Lee's other works are created with an exact, machine-like finish — a clean painting process evident in the large works currently on view at ArtsMemphis in the Emmett O'Ryan Award Group Exhibition. These paintings are minimal exercises in geometric, color-based abstraction and speak to Lee's ability to paint seamlessly.

Toyin Odutola's cropped portraits of African-American women, such as D.O. (An Awkward Moment During a Forced Pose), are not about blackness, pe se. But these are beautiful pieces and remind me of the work of Wangechi Mutu, who also features young African and African-American women in staged poses centrally within the frame with plenty of minimally altered negative space around the figure. The way that Odutola renders skin is similar to the way Margaret Munz-Losch treats skin in her work. Instead of replacing the skin with cocoons or maggots like Munz-Losch, Odutola's pieces seem to show skinned body parts exposing highly rendered muscle tissue. It would have benefited this exhibition to include more of Odutola's work.

There is one startling aspect of this exhibition: prices on the titles next to the pieces. Is the Hyde Gallery now acting as a commercial space? The prices next to the works negate the premise of the show, which is supposedly an intellectual conversation about race. Is it about the money or this much-needed statement? It is an unfortunate addition to an otherwise enjoyable exhibition.

Through March 9th

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