"Midnight's Daydream: Titus Kaphar, Wardell Milan II, Demetrius Oliver"; Studio Museum Harlem

By Richard, Frances | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

"Midnight's Daydream: Titus Kaphar, Wardell Milan II, Demetrius Oliver"; Studio Museum Harlem


Richard, Frances, Artforum International


The Studio Museum Harlem hosts three artists in residence every year, and gives them a summer show at the completion of their tenure. Alums of the program include David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, and Wangechi Mutu. This year's residents were Titus Kaphar, Wardell Milan II, and Demetrius Oliver, and each presented works in "Midnight's Daydream," a day-for-night fantasia investigating familial, political, and art-historical inheritance; the challenges of representing African-American desire; and compositional strategies of assemblage, deconstruction, and the juxtaposition of opposites.

Youth notwithstanding, the trio musters formidable bona fides. Kaphar and Milan attended Yale University; Oliver has mounted solo shows at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center; Milan and Oliver participated in the SMH's "Frequency" last year. The artists' interests dovetail neatly, and they must have enjoyed hanging out in one anothers' studios. Still, their strategies are sharply individual--indeed, Oliver's, for one, seems to have arrived at a point of transition.

This could bode well, despite the fact that Oliver--simple and incisive elsewhere--here relied on a too-hermetic system of symbols. He showed two photographic sequences and several modified found objects, all addressing ideas of cosmology and masculinity. The central piece was a forty-four-panel frieze of digital prints, each suggesting a full moon against a dark sky. Up close, the images resolve as portraits in a convex mirror, snippets of studio setups reflected in the flank of a polished teakettle. Oliver appears half-concealed behind a mirror, with solitary props in the foreground: a lantern, a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, some lightbulbs and electrical cords, raw bacon wrapped around the hafts of sledgehammers and claw hammers. Adjacent to the props stood the actual kettle, rigged to "sing" with a recording of what sounds like human screaming. So, an obsession with reflection and distortion meshed with gestures toward enlightenment (the lantern, the book), and perhaps a kind of semiotic John Henry-ism, wherein hammers, meat, and power stand for heroic self-obliteration. …

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