December 24, 1999


Adrian Piper: A Canvas of Concerns -- Race, Racism and Class

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    BALTIMORE -- For art, the 1990's started in a mood of agitation. The market went down the drain. AIDS was rampant. The 1993 Whitney Biennial, the most important American contemporary showcase of the decade, was a full-voiced chorus of long-excluded voices, black, Latino, gay and feminist among them.

    University of Maryland Fine Arts Gallery
    Adrian Piper's "My Calling (Card) No.2"(1986-90)

    What a difference a few years make. The 90's are ending on a complacent, upbeat note. Economics are back on track. AIDS has become the scourge of the silent poor at home and abroad. The art world has joined the rest of the world in dismissing politically concerned art as "politically correct."

    All of this provides an interesting context for the traveling midcareer retrospective of work by the American artist Adrian Piper, making its inaugural appearance at the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a half-hour drive from the center of Baltimore.

    Her work is about consciousness-raising. Her primary subjects are race, racism and their links to class and gender. Her forms are spare, unsensual, but for the most part attention-holding. Her method is interrogatory: she asks unsettling questions to evoke revealing responses. Sugar-coating isn't her style.

    The retrospective, organized by the art historian Maurice Berger and accompanied by a solid catalog, covers roughly 30 years. A few crucial pieces are missing, notably the photo-and-text-based drawings of the 1970's known as the "Mythic Being" series. (They will join the show at a later venue.) But the show is still as complete a view of this influential artist's career as we have had.

    It begins with paintings from 1966, when Ms. Piper was barely out of high school. One, titled "LSD Self-Portrait From the Inside Out," is period-piece psychedelia: an image of a black woman surrounded by an aura of high-color, splitting-apart geometric shards. The other, "Multichrome Mom and Dad," is a snapshotlike portrait of her parents, done in shades of gray except for the faces, which are biscuit-brown.

    University of Maryland Fine Arts Gallery
    Adrian Piper's "Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features" (1981)

    Although little more than juvenilia, the pictures point up essential aspects of Ms. Piper's work as a whole. The human figure and abstract forms play interactive roles. Autobiographical data recurs but is kept impersonal, always about something else, ideas as well as emotions. For example, the artist uses the fact that both her parents were of mixed-race heritage as a strategic point from which to attack essentialist concepts of race itself.

    In the late 1960's Ms. Piper aligned herself with the nascent Conceptual art movement, attracted to its intellectual rigor and speculative logic. At the same time, her political convictions were growing acute and specific. She brought these strands together (she was among the first artists to do so) in performance pieces executed in private and in public.

    "Food for the Spirit" (1970) was among her early private solo pieces, done when she was finishing a degree in philosophy at City College in New York. She approached an intensive study of Emmanuel Kant as a kind of yogic discipline, fasting as she worked. She recorded her appearance during this hermetic period in a series of remarkable photographs in which her body seems to be gradually dematerializing.

    Her public performances, by contrast, were often assertive and disruptive. For the "Mythic Being" series, she disguised herself as a black or Latino teenager in an Afro wig and acted out stereotypes of antisocial behavior, cruising women in the street, even staging a fake mugging. A single piece in the show catches the spirit: it is a head shot of the bewigged artist with a thought balloon that reads, "I embody everything you most hate and fear."

    Ms. Piper repeatedly appears in her own work, assuming different personae (she's a skilled and witty performer) and changing her looks as if she were herself a kind of malleable conceptual object.

    Sometimes she is just a voice, as in the installation titled "Art for Art World Surface Pattern" (1976). The piece consists of a walk-in white cubicle resembling an abstract sculpture. The interior is papered with photos of calamitous third world events for which Ms. Piper supplies an exasperated-sounding taped commentary that begins: "Oh, I get it. O.K. Got it. This is social conscience art. Right. O.K. You know, I mean, I don't need this when I come to an art show."

    Most of her role-playing, however, is visual. In a 1981 pencil drawing titled "Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features" she gives a cosmetic makeover the grim and haunted look of a mug shot. Elsewhere she plays with the educational aspects of her career as both didactic artist and professional academic. (She teaches philosophy at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.)

    In a terrific, funny video titled "Funk Lessons" (1983), she earnestly uses diagrams and personal demonstrations to instruct students in the how-to's of popular music and dance, generating lively class participation in the process. In "Cornered" (1988), she is filmed sitting behind a desk and explaining with unflappable, schoolmarmish composure that most Americans are, like her, genetically black, even if their physical appearance seems to say otherwise.

    This information also forms the basis for performance pieces she executed in social situations in the late 1980's. Their occurrence was spontaneous, their format simple: when she overheard casually dropped ethnic slurs at parties or dinners, she offered the offending speaker a business card printed with the words: "Dear Friend. I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark."

    Ms. Piper has placed a supply of these cards in the Baltimore show under the words: "Join the struggle. Take some for your own use." The implication is that any viewers, whatever their preferred racial self-identity, are eligible to pass them out. And that assumption gets to the radical core of what Ms. Piper's work is about.

    On the most obvious level, her mission is to reveal racist attitudes and behavior, overt or hidden, and call them by their right name. But she also provocatively suggests that such attitudes and behavior actually create race as a perceptual category and that that category, however illusory, reinforces hierarchies of socioeconomic power and exclusion.

    The idea of race as a construct, one producing tightly scripted and limiting roles, is being closely examined these days, with important implications for art.

    Although increasing numbers of young artists of African-American descent are forging careers, their number is still small and most are faced with "ethnic" expectations in terms of subject matter (colonialism, spirituality) and materials (elephant dung, for example), as were artists before them, including a whole generation of abstract painters.

    But the issue of ethnicity and post-ethnicity, intrinsic to the multiculturalist thinking of the 1990's, is far from being resolved and may stay that way. Racism, meanwhile, remains a fact. The black middle class is growing, but so is the black prison population. American consumerism is more and more an equal opportunity affair, but the hard-won benefits and protections gained by blacks during the civil rights era are now being legally dismantled.

    And so Ms. Piper's role as agent provocateur is as valid as ever. Her persistence in exposing the mechanics of prejudice, her insistence on the double-edged dangers inherent in the perception of difference, and her passionately instrumental view of art as a mind-altering and expanding substance make her just as much an artist of the moment today -- a stimulating and prophetic one -- as she has been for the last 30 years.

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