In and Out of Frame: Lorraine O’Grady’s “Art Is…”
by Louis Bury on September 5, 2015
Like a Choose Your Own Adventure story or a game of Mad Libs, the elliptical title of Lorraine O’Grady’s 1983 performance piece, “Art Is…,” creates space, playful and inviting, for structured audience participation. You fill in the blank, the title says, in a demotic spirit, Art can be whatever you want it to be. But ellipses do not simply, or even primarily, denote open space, a “to be continued” awaiting information; they also denote omission, something left out, perhaps suppressed. Both functions of the ellipsis — invitation and suppression — are at play throughout the piece, and I don’t mean “at play” metaphorically. O’Grady and her audience had a damned good time making art about something — African-American subjectivity — that is often missing from art. Their joy, thirty years on, is still infectious.
For the performance, O’Grady entered a float into that year’s African-American Day Parade, which ran, and still runs, up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in Harlem. On the side of the float, in big letters, were the words “ART IS…”; atop it, running lengthwise, was a massive 9’x15’ gold picture frame. In character as “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire,” a persona she had adopted, in the years prior, as a guise enabling her to crash art world events and draw attention to issues of racial underrepresentation, O’Grady and a troupe of 15 African-American and Latino performers, dressed all in white, walked around the float carrying empty gold picture frames. The empty frames were sometimes handed to onlookers, sometimes held in front of them, Vanna White-style, to encourage the mostly black audience to consider themselves as valid subjects, even makers, of art. Photographs taken by various people who witnessed these framings were then collected by O’Grady to document the performance. Forty of those images are currently on view in an eponymous exhibit of “Art Is…” at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The results are smart and exuberant, a delightful Conceptualist triumph of both head and heart.
Take, for example, “Art Is… (Girlfriends Times Two).” Standing before a dense crowd of parade-goers are two separate pairs of girls, maybe eight or ten years of age, each pair holding an empty frame, with their faces scrunched together side-by-side inside it. Three of the girls smile with full-mouthed merriment while the fourth plants a playful kiss upon the cheek of her frame-mate. The picture is plain fun to admire, heart-warming, even, as cute and goofy pictures of children often are. At the same time, its many compositional doublings — two internal frames, two groupings of two girls, two distinct halves to the image — bespeak the image’s formal complexity and conceptual rigor. The image’s doublings amplify the self-reflexivity that runs throughout all of “Art Is…”: not only does the title signal that this is art about art, but each image in the show contains an actual picture frame, often multiple picture frames, within the larger “frame” of the photograph. Sometimes, even, there is a frame within a frame within a frame, or a frame overlapping a frame within a frame. Framing, in the piece, thus becomes method, content, and metaphor.
Idiomatically, to be framed means to have been unwittingly set up so that others perceive you as the perpetrator of a crime you didn’t commit. O’Grady means nothing nearly so insidious with her framings — quite the contrary — but this usage points up the way in which framing, of whatever kind, always works through a process of selective inclusion and exclusion. If you’ve been framed for a crime, it means that others have been deceived about your actions; the truth about that crime lies outside the frame someone else has imposed upon you. Within an African-American context, choosing your frame or being subjected to it constitutes much more than an idle metaphor about art-making. ( . . . )