It has been a very good week for art at Yale. First, the joyous, vibrant and utterly packed reception of Black Pulp, curated by Yale School of Art’s own faculty members, William Villalongo and Mark Gibson. Next, the luminous presence of Cheryl Dunye on campus to talk about her film The Watermelon Woman for Yale’s “Groundbreaking Lesbian Filmmakers” series; seldom has a Q&A ever felt at all fulfilling, let alone as delightful as Dunye’s.
Finally there is New Genealogies at the Green Gallery, which were it not for two factors, might not strike one as thematically coherent art. Upon entering the exhibition, one finds no text, no titles, to names of artists; there is only a short piece of text on the wall, including an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s autobiography, which reads: “To whom do I owe the power behind my voice … the symbols of my survival … to whom do I owe the woman I have become?’ Naturally, the general absence of text increases the volume and gravity of Lorde’s voice in the room, which is, like all the hallowed halls of contemporary art in our metropolitan cities, that ghostly shade of gallerist white. The only other text is on the poster, which reads “New Genealogies, a selection of work by YSA students and faculty, curated by John Edmonds and Jenny Tang.”
An immediate impulse is to seek connection between the works displayed, but there is little to be found. Nine masks hang from a towering wall, and they cohere upon observation into three triptychs, with gaping multicolored mouths. A photograph of a middle-aged man straining to carry a cardboard box of old trophies shows only a sliver of his face, peering over in shadow. In another photo, the same man sits in an armchair with the lights off in fatherly sadness. Fathers pervade; the need so often discussed in the MFA crits to kill the father, whether pedagogical (Robert Reed), or historical (imperialism), or biological (your dad) is ubiquitous. Triangular canvases ensnare the viewer in crepuscular smog-cloaked forests. “What do words have to do with anything really?” trickles out of a film that displays a series of pseudo-vaporwave images connected by color and passing tech-info snippets. A series of small paper cards are arranged on a table, each containing a different pithy message on the reverse of it — tellingly: “I don’t have any respect for words.”
The feeling conjured is the same as walking around MoMA PS1’s recent “Greater New York” exhibition. Over 150 artists in a massive space, curated by a very small team generates a dizzying effect: There is too much to see and the futile yet inescapable attempt to connect this heap of images results in a rapid onset of fatigue. The scale is smaller at 1156 Chapel, but the effect is the same. However, the initial confusion, oceanic abandonment and complete nonlocality inside of the exhibit may be purposeful. Lorde’s questions on the wall, about searching and re-searching the past, finding anew the answers to “How did I get here?” are as unflinchingly humiliating as a Modern question can be.
To leave behind an old genealogy, to relinquish a line of descent traced continuously from histories we are told to cherish yet we know to contain unspeakable malevolence, is radical and paralyzing, and this sensation swells throughout the exhibit. From the pencil-drawn portrait of a Black woman whose gaze breaks out of her graphite medium’s supposed simplicity, to Kafkaesque photos of unknown yet menacing suburban locations, just focused enough to reveal the outline of bleak houses, each work is relentless in posing the questions “Do you know where you are?”; “Do you know what you are doing here?”
John Edmonds’ own comment on removing names and titles is definitively concise: “It elevates and equalizes,” he said. “The hierarchy from student to professor dissolves.” And yet, is there not a hierarchy, once the viewer knows the names of the curators, and no one else’s? Perhaps, from a cynical perspective, this is a curatorial effort to exercise social power, or perhaps this is the thing we aren’t willing to relinquish, the thing Lorde is looking for in herself: the guiding hand of an artist with sensitivity and talent.
The Genealogy, perhaps above all else, is Modernism’s problem child. To be an artist concerned with Genealogy is to look at where you came from and find new knowledge, almost undoubtedly some of which will be sorrowful or painful. In Nietzsche’s words, one “feel[s] it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint.”
On the closing night of the exhibition, a drastic change was effected: every piece was given a title and a name. Having gone to look at the show at least once a day for some time, I found the sudden nominal addition colossal. The works that stuck me and moved me had verbal companions: Tomashi Jackon, Isaac Howell, Alteronce Gumby, Tschabalala Self, Anoka Faruqee, Res. What’s in a name? More than I can say: pride, selfhood, origin, the power to own a work and a compromising awareness that to stroll through an exhibit of powerful unnamed work, connected only by the viewer’s imaginative power and willingness to connect, within moments become less of a stroll and more of a stumble, a crawl: a masterful revelation in both how impotent and how free we come to feel without the normative genealogies of an artistic tradition that we have, until entering into a show like this, too seldom questioned.