Milwaukee Art Museum challenges notions of identity and race with 30 Americans
30 Americans, on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through September 8, is not an exhibition for those who like easy answers. As soon as you walk through the doors, you’re confronted by a multitude of challenging questions and contrasting ideas, cast in just as many colors and materials, none of them the least bit didactic or simply understood. Instead, the nearly 80 works of contemporary art, comprising everything from paintings to video to found objects, speak in a range of voices, offering perspectives as diverse as the exhibition’s title would suggest. Still, that seemingly straightforward name gets a new wrinkle since the one thing that unites these eclectic Americans is that they’re African Americans.
“I think the Rubell Family Foundation wanted to provide an open-ended title for visitors to think about,” says MAM curator William Rudolph, referring to the private collection, one of the largest in the world, that originated the show. “Because what would it do to call it 30 African Americans? It is that of course, 31 African Americans in fact, but to just say 30 Americans I think makes the point that, in the 21st century, why would you assume that a group of Americans might not be African American?”
The traveling exhibition may be the brainchild of the Rubell Foundation, and it is comprised solely of pieces from their extensive collection, but this iteration of 30 Americans is something unique to Milwaukee, thanks to the curatorial freedoms afforded Rudolph and the rest of the team. “They let us choose the works that we wanted and install them in whatever combination we wanted,” he says. “This is the fourth time it’s been presented, and the first in the Midwest, but what’s cool is that as the show moves, it looks different in different places—partly because every group of curators gets to make those choices, and partly because of the different architecture of the various buildings.”
As far as art museums go, Milwaukee has hit the architectural jackpot, and Rudolph and company have capitalized mightily on the possibilities of the one-of-a-kind space. “It’s great when we’re able to do very contemporary art in this very contemporary building. To me, a lot of the pieces look like they were made for this space.”
Indeed, MAM was able to show pieces that were simply too big for other institutions—like the surreal silhouette storybook of Kara Walker’s “Camptown Ladies”—while still having room to section off some works—like Gary Simmons’ unsettling “Duck, Duck, Noose”—to dramatic effect. “We’ve heard from representatives of the foundation who’ve said it’s the best they’ve ever seen the show,” Rudolph says.
As stylistically diverse as the show is, it is possible to spot certain trends, like re-appropriating existing imagery. Kehinde Wiley’s striking “Triple Portrait of Charles I” borrows its title and triptych form from Anthony Van Dyck’s 17th century original, but replaces the English monarch with three baroquely ornate views of a typical urban youth. “So many artists have addressed the question of whether there is any such thing as an original image, and if so, what does changing it do?” Rudolph says. “And often what happens, and why I think it proves interesting to artists thinking about questions of race and identity, is that it deconstructs the power of the image, revealing the agenda of the original.”
Spanning the last 40 years or so—from trailblazing 1980s works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Robert Colescott to current art world stars like Mickalene Thomas and Nick Cave—30 Americans eschews presenting things chronologically, which gives a richer approximation of the lively ongoing cultural conversation these works are engaged in. It’s a conversation that can be picked up by anyone walking out of the show, largely because MAM’s incarnation lets the art speak for itself rather than shoehorning it into any conceptual framework. “Because all the artists are African American, it does, on one hand, sort of package certain ideas,” says Rudolph. “But on the other, the show resists the packaging, and really, that’s kind of the point.”