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Race and Class

Heavy issues don't spoil two exciting exhibits.

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Dying rednecks, Rebel flags, and off-road vehicles populate Colin McLain's new batch of paintings, "Redneck Resume," at David Lusk Gallery, while over at the Memphis College of Art, coinciding with Black History Month, the exhibit "Shadows & Silhouettes: The Dangerous Faces of Willie Cole and Juan Logan" explores identity, dignity, and oppression in the context of the African diaspora. And next I'm going to ask you to stick out your tongue and take your medicine. Not really, but that is often the perception of shows that adopt such grave and/or acerbic postures.

In the last few decades, there has been a prominent notion among artists, curators, art historians, etc., that art is a vehicle of social and political consequence, manifesting in dissections of gender, race, class, geopolitical issues, and almost anything else imaginable. There is, however, a flip side -- a suspicion of art experiences that are supposed to be "good for you," suggesting that such enterprises generally have a limited scope of cultural influence, remaining instead inside a privileged cocoon of the like-minded and self-congratulatory.

These two exhibits in particular couldn't be more astringent to regional sensitivities and obsessions with race and class. McLain's crudely drawn pickup trucks emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag and superimposed over fields of camouflage scream Deliverance. The use of the hotly disputed emblem by the artist is decisive, a recognition of its potency as "both a badge of Southern pride and an encapsulation of hate." The work of Cole and Logan, referencing the systematic shuffling of African Americans into the lowest rungs of labor and society, is a heritage that many defenders of the Stars and Bars ironically wish could be left behind. "What is an inspiration for some," intones McLain, "inspires fear and loathing in others."

The attention showered upon "Shadows & Silhouettes" -- including a swank dinner party for the artists, the purchase of Cole's Man, Spirit, Mask by the Brooks Museum, and no less than three separate stories about the exhibit in the daily newspaper -- is unprecedented in Memphis. The timing of the exhibit during Black History Month and the attendant fanfare perhaps hold more sway over the impact of the work of Cole and Logan than any single interpretation of its multifaceted content. Scholarship and reviews included in the press kit, plus coverage by the local media ("Two-man show reflects on racist vestiges"), seem to fixate on the exhibit's sociopolitical signification above its other estimable qualities.

While there is no denying the identifying marks of ethnicity, the exhibit obviously weaves Western art values with African motifs, evident from the use of found objects, conceptual art, and a grab-bag approach to cultural appropriation that is positively postmodern. The exhibit, deftly curated by Cynthia Thompson, while not abandoning serious intellectual content, seems to follow a current in art that revels as much in visceral punch as refined craft. Logan's Whose Song Shall I Sing? is a series of multiples, resin faces cast in soft, molten contours and coated with a velvety chocolate patina that resembles a delectable confection. The round jowls and puffy lips of this comical character, smiling in a gesture of appeasement and servitude, call to mind the archetypal Aunt Jemima or Step 'n' Fetchit, an identity created ultimately by ignoble white culture. However, the grid-like installation of dozens of masks is strictly modern, even clinical, transforming a benign, familiar caricature into a grinning menace.

Playfulness and a sense of humor characterize the work of Cole and Logan, taking the edge off of its serious content, an element that McLain also utilizes in his oil paintings to good effect. The artist is still making cartoons with bubblegum-color combos and comic-strip narratives, but we're not talking Peanuts here. The inspiration for McLain's slumping, lurching, and prone characters is Robert Capa's photograph Death of a Loyalist Soldier, which captures a combatant at the moment he is shot during the Spanish Civil War, an image credited as being the first close-up photo of armed conflict. Similarly, Fugazi depicts an unfortunate redneck at the instant of his doom, his body seized by a bullet, leaving a trail of crimson.

As perplexing as the blending of rednecks, violent death, and the Sunday comics is, McLain continues to grow as a painter. Gone are the excessive drips and convoluted sloppiness of the earlier work; one might even suggest that the artist's technique has become slick. Rather than the complementary and tertiary color relationships so characteristic of his prior work, the artist offers more complexity in his palette, even if it is still quite pungent. What hasn't changed, thankfully, is his fresh approach to line, using the vernacular of the cartoonist to achieve deliciously painterly results à la Philip Guston.

Distilling what is essential about these two excellent shows is difficult in the shadow of their prickly or even incendiary themes. McLain's convergence of incongruous motifs is enigmatic, perhaps purposely so, but, while one finds hot-button issues broached, no palpable stand can be discerned. Cole and Logan's message is unequivocal, even while their symbolism is more poetic, but does it amount to preaching to the choir?

"Shadows & Silhouettes" through February 28th; "Redneck Resume" through February 23rd.

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