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The Studio Museum in Harlem Does Something Very Special

The Studio Museum in Harlem Does Something Very Special

"Midnight's Dream", Demetrius Oliver

John Haber

October 04, 2007

The Studio Museum in Harlem does something very special: it goes quietly about its business. Not that the museum lacks for guts and ambition. It is, after all, asking for attention to contemporary black artists. Yet its shows often have a modesty others might do well to emulate. They invite one to relax, respond, and settle in, and that is exactly when the creative possibilities start to flow.

Since Thelma Golden took over in 2001, the museum has had two surveys of emerging artists, neither so frenzied that one could hardly remember the art. When it considered Black Artists and Abstraction, it made remarkably little fuss about rewriting recent art history. Even a focus on a single prominent artist, Gary Simmons, made its impact with relatively few, large works. Part stems from space constraints, part from Golden’s style and convictions. She and her associate curator, Christine Y. Kim, imply that issues of diversity and black identity will emerge best if one does not try to define them once and for all, and they select art accordingly. And part stems from going about the museum’s business of encouraging young artists, including an annual display of its artists in residence that puts the studio back in the Studio Museum.

This year’s version sticks to just the rear level, through October 28, as if taking one behind the scenes, and it feels very much like a studio visit. One gets to see three artists playing with ideas, and if they do not quite have them worked out yet, so be it. All three have two or three distinct bodies of work that do not quite converge, and all play games with the viewer seeking convergence. One, a photographer, gets one wondering not just what is going on in his photos, but what has gone wrong with the museum. The other two litter their work with references and withhold a healthy chunk of the footnotes. Hey, they seem to say, anyone can play, so give it your best shot.

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