Self Reflections 

The search for culture in VMFA's "Identity Shifts" exhibit turns up new discoveries and provocative statements.

This charcoal work, “Steeped” (2011) by the artist Robert Pruitt is just one example of the African-American art that has been collected in earnest by VMFA since the ‘90s.

This charcoal work, “Steeped” (2011) by the artist Robert Pruitt is just one example of the African-American art that has been collected in earnest by VMFA since the ‘90s.

Sometimes the most compelling art is created by people omitted from traditional history. "Identity Shifts," the companion exhibition to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' featured summer show, "Posing Beauty," assembles works by black artists, displaying many for the first time.

Collecting African-American art is nothing new for the museum, which acquired its first piece in the 1940s but began collecting it in earnest in the '90s.

The result is a wide-ranging exhibition with photographs from the Harlem renaissance, a room devoted to contemporary artistic pioneers of the 1970s through '90s and a much larger gallery space for 21st-century works. Through painting, sculpture, fabric works, prints and photography, the artists use representations of the human body or some aspect of it to explore the notion that there are complex layers to who we are.

Former dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts from 1976-1995, Murry DePillars is represented with "From the Mississippi Delta," a striking work from 1997 that demonstrates the artist's passion for color and pattern. DePillars' statement explains that early African-American quilt-makers' aesthetics and their insistence on building instead of sewing quilts had a major influence on his work.

That's a thread that runs through most of the 20th-century works in this show, where artists turn to folk and African-American influences to convey a sense of identity and culture.

By the time the new millennium rolled around, the artists who came to the fore were engaged in art history itself and considering who was left out of it. Many black artists concluded that subjects of color and power were conspicuously absent.

Kehinde Wiley addressed the omission by plucking men off the street and having them choose a classical painting in which they would be the subject of a lavish, larger-than-life work.

"He was putting African-American males in a position of power in his paintings to address the lack of that in art history," says Sarah Eckhardt, the assistant curator of modern and contemporary art.

By 2012, Wiley had begun a series of paintings of women based on 19th-century society portraits he'd seen in the Louvre. In those works, gowns were commissioned for the sitters, so Wiley did the same using Ricardo Tisci of Givenchy to design what his models — women plucked from the streets of Queens and the Bronx — would wear. The 2012 result, "The Two Sisters," is a monumental work, realistic in its portraiture yet thoroughly modern in its purely decorative background, and a deliberate stab at the absence of people of color in traditional European art.

In an exhibition full of conversation-provoking art, Sonya Clark's "Black Hair Flag" is guaranteed to live on in the minds of viewers long after they leave the museum. As a reflection on the complicated ways that American and Confederate histories coincide, Clark has woven knots and cornrows through a Confederate flag to create the stars and stripes of the American flag.

Long before she was chair of VCU's department of craft and material studies, Clark used hair prominently in her work as subject and medium. "The work is envisioned through all the lenses that constitute my individuality," she says. "My viewpoint is multifaceted or multiple lensed. I'm an artist who is thinking about history, representation, identity, American-ness."

Of the latter, she notes that it may be more meaningful to some that she's a first-generation American rather than a Northerner. For others it may be that she's a woman, or black. "But authorship is never singular really," she says. "There is always the complexity of identity."

"Posing Beauty" and "Identity Shifts" may not have the mainstream appeal of Dale Chihuly's glass or the bling of the "Maharaja" exhibit, but attendance has been on par with previous photography-based shows such as Sally Mann's and the South African "Darkroom" exhibit, with visitors arriving steadily to take it in.

Regulars to the museum's galleries will appreciate not having to fight crowds to enjoy one of the strongest contemporary art shows in memory. Art lovers would be wise to head upstairs after seeing "Identity Shifts" to connect the dots with other recent African-American acquisitions, such as "Catfish Row" by 20th-century modernist Jacob Lawrence, the first Lawrence to enter the museum's collection, or Aaron Douglas' lyrical "The Prodigal Son," a rare canvas by an artist who primarily was a mural painter.

Like many of the museum's thoughtfully curated shows, "Identity Shifts" is attracting out-of-town visitors, too. On a June morning, a trio of women moves slowly from piece to piece, discussing each in depth.

Renee Carter has traveled from Smithfield. "I wanted to see how black women were being portrayed," she says. "I figured the exhibit would be from a long time ago to the present and I wanted to see the difference."

Her friend Deborah Kinney, a museum member and history buff, agrees: "I wanted to see how the beauty and richness of our African-American culture was depicted."

Linda Braxton of Fredericksburg says she'll be back. "It's fabulous," she says of the exhibit. "It depicts positive images of black culture. I'm going to tell my friends and bring my husband. There's so much to enjoy in this show." S

"Identity Shifts" runs through July 27 at VMFA, 200 N. Boulevard. For information call 340-1400 or visit vmfa.museum.

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