Judith Wilson, 1991

LORRAINE O’GRADY: Critical Interventions

by JUDITH WILSON, 1991

I feel the battle I face. . . as artist and critic is the same as it ever was: to have black genius accepted without condescension.

In a series of performances since 1980, Lorraine O’Grady has subjected standard ideas of race, class and gender to a kind of poetic dislocation and visceral scrutiny. Her goal has been to act as critic as much as artist: to produce creative arguments against existing definitions that herd Black and other Third World artists into such categories as “primitive” or “derivative,” to expose the masochism of Black bourgeois values and their translation into tame aesthetics, and to “establish the Black female body as a subject rather than an object field.” A central figure among a doubly obscure group of artists — African-Americans who make performance art — , O’Grady has constructed an art at once of ideas and of fugitive, yet powerful, images.

This installation of photodocumentation and photomontages is her first solo exhibition in New York; it expands and synthesizes the concerns of her performance work.

With each of the four rooms of the present display, O’Grady explores a different set of answers to the question “What should we do?” and its correlate, “What is there time for?” Her language here uncannily echoes, yet subverts, the mythic aspirations of Paul Gauguin’s famous title, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? — which designates a work that has been described as “a self-conscious masterpiece,” an attempt “to embody a total philosophy of life, civilization, and sexuality.” The Gauguin work was prominently hung in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which O’Grady visited on school field trips as a young girl.

The cheekiness with which she yokes the earnest “What should we do?” to the mundane “What is there time for?” however, belies the production of masterpieces and “total” philosophies. In a text piece created at the time of the present exhibit, she vowed: “I’m keeping my options open for the Millenium.” ( … )

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