WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME a major art museum issued an open call for submissions to an upcoming show? Um ... never? While open calls are the staple of a thousand regional and community art centers, the metro curator lives or dies by her own deft instincts about where to look, how to prefer, and what to embrace. So when one of the art world's most sophisticated curators circulates an announcement that begins "Attention Artists!" and goes on to solicit work in the figurative genre of "romanticism," irony hounds are likely to salivate at the prospect of another juicy morsel of conceptualism coming their way. Even for those with duller appetites, it may not be easy to take such a gesture at face value. Thirty years of tastemaking and art practice have made it habitual to extract conceptual merit from almost every aspect of the commonplace--the cuckoo clock on the mantelpiece, an ad for mail-order brides, Jesus Christ's visage on the moon, the boy next door. When nothing cannot be redeemed by irony, everything will b e.
Thelma Golden is hoping that visitors to "Black Romantic," her show of popular, figurative black art opening this month at the Studio Museum in Harlem (where she is deputy director for exhibitions and programs), will see fit to check their irony at the door. That will be a lot to ask, though she, more than most, has a shot at winning this gamble (having survived curatorial trials by fire at the Whitney to become the current queen of the hill), and it is the pluckiest wager in many a year. The open call was a practical matter: It gave Golden access to a vast community of artists about whom she knew very little. They include figures like Kadir Nelson, Dean Mitchell, Alonzo Adams, Gerald Griffin, and Philip Smallwood, who have zero name recognition in the art world yet are exhibited widely in historically black college galleries and hold pride of place in the personal collections of Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Spike Lee, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, and Eddie Murphy. They command top billing at black art stores and galleries in malls across the country, and reproductions of their work can be found in street fairs and festivals, even on vendors' tables along Harlem's 125th Street.
The genres these artists favor are frankly pictorial, focused on the dignity of proud, often heroic black figures and steeped in a utopian realism that tends to highlight the strongest, finest, most fearless, and least compromised. Their themes are humanistic and accentuate the positive, even when their subjects are down on their luck. A blue-collar worker, taking a load off his feet. A basketball giant, sculpted, poised, and withholding his power. A grandmother with an achy back, her mind on something higher than the daily wash. A steamy Black Venus, shell-surfing ashore on a moonlit wave. As tableaux of social feeling, they are probably a more accurate distillation of the philosophy of the black majority than are those renditions of black life that are overrepresented in the public eye: the boilerplate media depictions of ghetto distress and thug life on the one hand, and the gold-plated, bling-bling dioramas of high life promoted by hip-hop videos on the other. Even so, they stand foursquare in the dominan t black art tradition of figuration, ever popular because it is the most effective vehicle for correcting the long history of visual caricatures of black people.
When the world of taste that mattered was simpler, the art in "Black Romantic" would have been neatly assigned to the middlebrow. With one stroke of Clement Greenberg's pen, in fact. But that can no longer be the case. For one thing, there are sectors of the art world (and they include prominent black artists dealing with black content) that not only court kitsch but try to achieve its effect in all sorts of knowing ways. Nor are the more familiar landmarks of middlebrow art likely to be of much help in guiding the disoriented. …