With a cursory glance, Kara Walker’s black cut-paper silhouettes look like benign nineteenth-century antebellum scenes or Walt Disney cartoon characters from such classic pieces as the 1946 film Song of the South. A closer, probing investigation reveals the underlying terror surrounding race, gender, and sexual identity politics in America.
While exploring and challenging long-held notions of feminine beauty, Mickalene Thomas uses rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel to create stupendously textured paintings. Sometimes she pairs these paintings with video installations that juxtapose Blaxploitation film imagery with that of classic Western European portraiture.
Thomas’s influences range from historical figures such as Henri Matisse and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to contemporary artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Kara Walker. She also looks to 1970s Blaxploitation films and music legends such as Eartha Kitt, Bessie Smith, Sharon Jones, and Billie Holiday
The world of advertising—and all the sociopolitical implications it has regarding race, gender, and class—provide the launching pad for Hank Willis Thomas’s bold photographs. Sometimes his works include autobiographical information, as in Priceless #1, which riffs off the famous MasterCard slogan (“There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”), yet depicts the funeral of his murdered cousin, Songha Willis.
Various characters from Henry Taylor’s Los Angeles surroundings often inhabit his vivid paintings. Taylor has incorporated the likenesses of family members, as well as neighborhood friends, in his works. While attending the California Institute of the Arts, Taylor worked as a psychiatric technician at the Camarillo State Hospital. There he sketched various patients.
Jeff Sonhouse concentrates on themes of black masculinity in his striking paintings that often find his subjects donning menacing, multipatterned masks and vivid, dandy-like suits. At times focusing on iconic or controversial figures, Sonhouse has created portraits of Colin Powell, Michael Jackson, and Diddy. In 2008 Sonhouse broke with his practice of depicting only men with his exhibition Pawnography, which included a portrait of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Many found objects, from old fabrics and discarded picture frames to sneakers and T-shirts make up much of Baltimore-native Shinique Smith’s intriguing art. She sometimes incorporates street graffiti and Japanese calligraphy in works that both comment on public consumption and serve as personal reflections. Such is the case with her captivating 2007 sculpture a bull, a rose, a tempest, which she has described as part of a “big requiem.” The work incorporates memorabilia of deceased artists, including a T-shirt featuring the late rapper Tupac Shakur, who entered the Baltimore School of the Arts the year she left.
Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, Lorna Simpson’s seductive photography and paintings concentrated on themes of race, gender, and sexuality. She would often pair strategically cropped images of women’s body parts alongside enigmatic text. In January 2011 Simpson offered a very different kind of photo-based work, in the exhibition Gathered at the Brooklyn Museum, presenting re-creations of vintage photographs alongside the originals, exploring the interplay between fact and fiction, identity and history.
In addition to creating dazzling photographs and gripping sculptures, Xaviera Simmons also makes critically acclaimed installations. These often investigate music, particularly cherished LP artwork. In 2006 she created How to Break Your Own Heart, stapling classic jazz album covers on the walls of New York City’s Art in General gallery, where she frequently deejays. “I constructed this installation as a site of sensorial intervention in a heavily trafficked landscape,” she explained to the New York Foundation for the Arts. “My intentions were also to create a space that was immediately educational to the passerby, a space that engages as well as surprises.” Simmons reprised the concept the following year at Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum with the installation, Electric Relaxation: Digital Good Times, which included R&B and hip-hop album covers, along with archival video footage.