Exblinguished: Ebony G. Patterson and Rashaad Newsome at the Studio Museum in Harlem

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BUBBLE GUM PINK — Ebony Patterson’s installation “…when they grow up…” pulls viewers in like a glittery, sparkling bubble that’s on the verge of popping and sticking all over everything. Everything — the floor, the ceiling, all four walls, even the column piercing the center of the room — everything is covered in pink, hot pink, much of it with white polka dots.

It is, in a word, disarming, and ultimately hard to shake. So much stronger the irony, then, that toy weapons proliferate (decked out in Carnival beads), along with stuffed animals, dolls, balloons, Hot Wheels, iron-on patches of cartoon trains and animals, birds and airplanes, candy wrappers, ferns and flowers, and lots and lots of butterflies. Boys in blue camouflage and rhinestone bowties. Girls looking elegant but still childlike. Shoes, bows and arrows, crayons, a toy stethoscope, plastic sports equipment, and more bejeweled guns litter the floor. At the center, a striped teepee bearing more (faux) vegetation inside than out, including a pair of floral print satin Mary Janes. Letters and numbers abound — in the form of building blocks and refrigerator magnets, but they add up to nothing. No sense can be made. Pink has no place in a black and white world.

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Ebony G. Patterson . . . when they grow up . . (installation view). The Studio Museum in Harlem, March 24–June 26, 2016. Photo: Adam Reich

“He looks like he’s up to no good,” George Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher about Trayvon Martin before ignoring the dispatcher’s advice to leave the child alone. “He looks black.”

“I am urging the parents of Black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies,” said Geraldo Rivera. “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.”

The largest portion of the installation, occupying one of the three full walls, is a series of four portraits called “(…when they grow up…).” Three boys and one girl, adolescents attempting to appear like adults but failing — their innocence bleeding through their gazes and the holes that riddle their images.

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Ebony G. Patterson (. . . when they grow up . . .) (series) (installation view), 2016. Beads, appliques, fabric, glitter, buttons, costume jewelry, trimming, rhinestones, magnetic letters, ribbons, and adhesive on digital print on hand-cut watercolor paper. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery. Photo: Adam Reich.

The one who appears to be the oldest wearsacross his chest the only intelligible word in all the installation — W – O – R – T – H – Y — in magnetic letters.

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Ebony G. Patterson 12 (. . . when they grow up . . .) (installation view), 2016 Beads, appliques, fabric, glitter, buttons, costume jewelry, trimming, rhinestones, ribbons, toy car, plastic letters, feathered butterflies, and adhesive on digital print on hand-cut watercolor paper, 73 × 51 in. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery Photo: Adam Reich

The sparkly baubles — the bling — contrasted with the dark subject matter in this installation echoes back to Patterson’s previous performance/exhibition, Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, which:

consists of twenty elaborately decorated coffins mounted on tall wooden poles, objects that originated from a performance conceived by Patterson for the 2014 Carnival in Kingston, Jamaica. On April 27 of that year, Patterson carried fifty ostentatious coffins on poles with the help of local Jamaicans; accompanying them were several dancers and a drum line from the St. Michael’s Steppers community marching band. Evoking a bling funeral, the procession matched the boisterous and celebratory tone of Carnival…The performance attempts to provide the working poor not only access to the ceremonies but also an unmistakable presence by using the spectacle of bling funerals. In such celebrations, closely linked to the underclass, the dead are remembered through raucous dancing parties featuring erotic costumes and dancehall music.

The description of the bling funerals above reminds me of this scene from The Wire, where Brody goes to purchase an ostentatious funeral arrangement for his fallen comrade. And blingy baubles abound two floors up, too, in the collages and videos that make up Rashaad Newsome’s exhibit about voguing called “This is What I Want to See.”

ICON (video still), 2014 Single-channel video installation, sound, TRT 00:09:21, edition 2 of 3 Courtesy the artist and De Buck Gallery, New York Photo: Courtesy the artist

ICON (video still), 2014
Single-channel video installation, sound,
TRT 00:09:21, edition 2 of 3
Courtesy the artist and De Buck Gallery, New York Photo: Courtesy the artist

The logic of conspicuous consumption among the economically deprived, of sporting the trappings of wealth, is counterintuitive to many who are better off.

“We hates us some poor people,” Tressie McMillan Cottom writes in her seminal essay The Logic of Stupid Poor People. “First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags.”

Cottom’s mother and grandmother often helped neighbors in their community navigate the (mostly white) bureaucracies that held a disproportionate influence in their lives, where petty clerks might not volunteer crucial information if they did not know to ask the right questions, for example. To this end, Cottom’s mother, and later Cottom, herself, wore a type of “uniform” in the form of designer clothes and accessories and “talking white.” Cottom continues:

I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child?

ICON (video still), 2014 Single-channel video installation, sound, TRT 00:09:21, edition 2 of 3 Courtesy the artist and De Buck Gallery, New York Photo: Courtesy the artist

ICON (video still), 2014
Single-channel video installation, sound,
TRT 00:09:21, edition 2 of 3
Courtesy the artist and De Buck Gallery, New York Photo: Courtesy the artist

Pepper LaBeija says as much in the (likewise seminal) documentary on voguing, Paris is Burning:

This is white America. Any other nationality that is not of the white set, knows this and accepts this till the day they die. That is everybody’s dream and ambition as a minority — to live and look as well as a white person…I mean, the biggest thing that minority watches is what? “Dynasty” and “The Colbys”. Umm, “All My Children” — the soap operas. Everybody has a million-dollar bracket…And when it comes to the minorities — especially black — we as a people, for the past 400 years — is the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization. We have had everything taken away from us, and yet we have all learned how to survive. That is why, in the ballroom circuit, it is so obvious that if you have captured the great white way of living, or looking, or dressing, or speaking – you is a marvel.

So voguing “straddles the high and the low,” reads the wall text to This is What I Want to See, “a blend of formal techniques from ballet, modern dance, modeling, hip hop dance and mime,” and Newsome’s “collage works are elaborate interrogations of of the symbols found in heraldry and Baroque architecture…[that] reframe how status and power are presented.”

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L.S.S. (Kevin JZ Prodigy), 2014 Collage in custom frame, 50 1/2 × 58 × 4 in. Courtesy the artist and Marlborough Gallery, New York Photo: Bill Orcutt

In these collages, named for famous vogue “legends,” viewers see gold and platinum rings, necklaces, and bracelets encrusted with rubies, diamonds and sapphires and emblazoned with slogans in Italian and English reading “Paradise is where I am” and “Gratitude * Change * Endurance;” Swiss timepieces (one bearing white Jesus on the inside lid); billowing smoke, fire, white women’s “good” hair, and sumptuous fabrics exploding outward; a Rolls Royce; expensive custom car wheel rims; architectural details; a diamond encrusted wheel rim with Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the center; a shiny white ass; a silver, turquoise, and diamond tiara; and the Illuminati’s Eye of Providence chained to a pearl floating above it all, bearing witness.

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L.S.S. (Alex Mugler), 2014 Collage in custom frame, 50 1/2 × 58 × 4 in. Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York Photo: Bill Orcutt

The frames enclosing these two collages are no less rich. Carved wood, glittery paint, leather, crocodile skin, braided rope, and — far off in the margins of the margins — black hair — all in black.

Finally, stepping into the back gallery, viewers are treated to Newsome’s video “Icon,” (a tribute to the House of Icon?) which reads almost like two videos. One half features dancers voguing a breakbeat soundtrack with the refrain “Rich Bitch,” as they compete in something resembling the Mortal Kombat video game in a cage made of platinum or silver chains. The other half shows (presumably) drag queens “pole dancing” on similar chain structures.

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ICON (video still), 2014 Single-channel video installation, sound, TRT 00:09:21, edition 2 of 3 Courtesy the artist and De Buck Gallery, New York Photo: Courtesy the artist

Cao Fei’s video “COSPlayers,” currently on view at MoMA PS1 picks up a similar form — playing with video games in a more linearly narrated and longer film, but I have to spend more time with that before I can talk much more about it. The same with Rodney McMillian, who is showing with Newsome at Rashaad at the Studio Museum in Harlem through June 26 (when these three and four other shows close) with concurrent solo shows at PS1 and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.

I’ll leave you with another set of stills from Newsome’s video “Icon.” I captured these myself on my phone.

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No, wait! I’ll leave you with this food for thought from the exhibit, Palatable: Food and Contemporary Art. Come back here for a full post on McMillian and go to the Studio Museum before June 26! They’re only open Thursday – Sunday and Sundays are free, thanks to Target. (And I wouldn’t normally plug a corporation for their alleged “philanthropy,” but Target supposedly needs our support as they stand up for transgender rights or really just common sense in this ongoing bathroom insanity — maybe I should leave you with a photo of bathrooms done right by Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia…yeah.)

Miguel Luciano, Pure Plantainum, 2006. Green plantain plated in platinum. Courtesy of the artist.

Miguel Luciano, Pure Plantainum, 2006. Green plantain plated in platinum. Courtesy of the artist.

David Hammons, Koolaid Drawing, 2004. Kool-Aid and pencil on paper. Courtesy Elisabeth Wingate.

David Hammons, Koolaid Drawing, 2004. Kool-Aid and pencil on paper. Courtesy Elisabeth Wingate.

Common sense on display at Philadelphia's Institute for Contemporary Art.

Common sense on display at Philadelphia’s Institute for Contemporary Art.

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