“Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century” at the Long Beach Museum of Art, an otherwise compelling look at identity creation, gets stonewalled by an installation that could do more damage than Michael Richards ever could.
More damage than a damnable spectacle broadcast worldwide?
Because it’s more subtle and thus more insidious. Because it occurs in a place of refinement. Because, as custodian of culture, the Museum should have thought this through.
All that notwithstanding, it’s a lovely show. Seventy or so pieces cover all manner of media – photography, including some fascinating cartes-de-visite, sheet music covers, engravings, oil paintings, hand-colored lithographs, and, my favorites, hand-cut silhouettes. Large pieces, small ones, clustered with significance, isolated for effect.
With richly colored walls and selected spotlit pieces, the installation waxes respectful and reverent.
(With the exception of an annoying proclivity to list sponsor names on wall labels. Here they stand out in bold type face that begs the ironic question: is sponsorship - read chattel - more important that education?).
As narrative, the show thunders with drama; the liberation of people of color from the thralldom of slavery.
Subject matter includes the full spectrum of professions: businessmen, an 18th century woman poet, actors, a slave who led a rebellion, an aide to Lafayette in the Revolutionary war, preachers, and artists.
Premise-wise, the work depicts how people of color were seen in the 19th century. This it does in an honorable, tasteful way.
But ideas propagate agendas, some overt, some not. Here, the overt agenda is art’s contribution to the creation of a particular identity of a particular people. Exhibitions have done, or tried to do, the same thing with gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Nonetheless, if we’re going to use art as a political, identity-creating tool, then we have to hold museums – with, covert or not, politically charged installations - to the same standard. In this case the picture’s not so flattering.
Inadvertently, I’m sure, the show’s installation unveils hidden structures of what theorists call power. If you agree that representation can create identity, then installation can unveil societal structure. This installation denigrates whatever positive intent, latent or otherwise, informed the show.
You can’t deny that the first gallery was considerably darker than the second gallery. The gallery housed letters and other light-sensitive material.
Nor can you deny that wall pieces were hung at a lower than accustomed level. I have to think that, with their philosophy of marketing-informs-curating, the Museum had to account for the busloads of children for which material-thanked donors funded.
In the world of hidden, veiled agendas and power structures, the installation begets, subtly or not, the same master-slave relationship whose binds the show wanted to show as unbound: a gallery shrouded in darkness, wall pieces you look down on.
Sometimes a picture alone isn’t worth a thousand words. Sometimes it’s got to be well-hung, as well.
The show ran until November 26, 2006. The Museum is located at 2300 East Ocean Boulevard. For more information call 439-2119 or visit www.lbma.org.