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Don’t Turn Off The Switch, I’m Not Done Yet

May 5 - May 25, 2022

Chaz Outing

Bless Thy Child (2021)

Oil on canvas

16 x 20 in. (40.64 x 50.80 cm.)

Press Release

The genre of black portraiture is rife with variegated historical threads. For instance, the contemporary artist Jennifer Packer (b. 1984) uses abstraction interwoven with selective tableaus of negative space to imbue her subjects with emotional poignancy, sensitively dovetailing realism and expressive experimentation. Packer’s portraits include political activists like Sandra Bland but also her friends and family, using her art practice to democratize the subjects of painterly representation. On the other hand, Minnie Evans (1890-1987), a self-taught southern folk artist, invokes personal spiritual themes in her portraits; plucking bright and floral motifs inspired by azaleas, Evans surrounds the subjects of her portraits with curvilinear and spiral concentric forms that feature plants, trees, and animals. Another critical bedrock in this tradition is the work of Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017) who, depicting black life of the late-1960s through the early-1980s with a cool realist sensibility, revolutionized portrait painting by positing an assertive autonomy to subjects selected from Hendricks’ daily life. These are but mere select examples of an expansive and rich art historical tradition, and one which Zeinab Diomande, Lauryn Levette, and Chaz Outing are the progenitors of.

Arguably, black portraiture as an art practice is inherently radical. It is noteworthy that Joshua Johnson (1763 -1832), whom many art historians deem the first professional African-American artist, painted numerous portraits but was never able to depict black subjects; any art historical examination of portraiture cannot turn away from the question of who is portrayed and why. In fact, some of the first portraits of African bodies painted in the United States context were proffered by European artists like William Hoare of Bath (1707-1792); such portraits, like Hoare's Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (c. 1733), fetishize their subjects, reductively donning them in putatively “traditional” garb” and, wittingly or not, are leavened with a colonialist gaze. Hence, for black artists to depict black subjects is intrinsically politicized.

Insofar as contemporary art is concerned, the aforementioned art historical thread of black portraiture that includes Hendricks, Evans, and Packer (amongst others) is, in critical ways, at odds with another approach epitomized by Kehinde Wiley’s (b. 1977) late career. Albeit Wiley began his practice portraying those in his local community, he has gone on to to deracinate portraiture from quotidian, working-class subjects and extol celebrities like Barack Obama or LeBron James. Wiley has often underscored that this is a celebration of black excellence but, wittingly or unwittingly, it is steeped in coeval celebration of capitalism and the upper echelon—i.e., what sociologist E. Franklin Frazier has called “the black bourgeoise.” The approach proffered by Wiley repeats capital’s logic by circumscribing the aesthetics of black excellence to the black elite, which is at the expense of working-class, everyday people. That Wiley’s art practice repeats this capitalism logic—using gargantuan studios in the outskirts of Beijing where Chinese workers produce Wiley’s portraits—is no coincidence.

The artists on view in Don’t Turn Off The Switch, I’m Not Done Yet approach black portraiture by way of the former tradition, which, although comprised of sundry formal approaches ranging from representational realism to expressive abstraction, shares an interest in everyday black people. Consequently, this tradition, even when it employs abstraction as an aesthetic technique, is rooted in realist subject matter. Works like Levette's In Progress (2022) use bleeding coral hues to depict an ethereal, almost god-like winged muscular figure in situ, while Diomande’s voyeuristic it’s a sardine situation (2022) takes a prismatic approach to the cityscape, showing a subject sitting before an expansive window while gleefully eating the eponymous sardines. Outing's Every dawg has his day (2021) shows a beaming cartoonish character accessorized in glistening gold jewelry with their fingers perched round a cigarette, a companion dog sitting closely by. With myriad scenes plucked from the everyday but bedaubed in kaleidoscopic color schemes, the paintings comprising this exhibition collectively unspool the argument that such depictions are not only more politically radical but also more aesthetically interesting. Indeed, an aesthetic obsession with the upper echelon is not merely a trend that infects the late Wiley but also much of contemporary art that is intended for an upper middle-class and upper-class intelligentsia. In response, Don’t Turn Off The Switch, I’m Not Done Yet offers a more radical stance.