When Bank of America came to Deborah Willis, the photographer, art historian and MacArthur fellow known for crafting a history of black photography, and asked her to curate an exhibition from their collection of African-American art, she knew it was an opportunity with certain limitations, but she took it anyway.
“It was a chance to tell a story,” Willis says.
The exhibition she curated, Mixing Metaphors: The Aesthetic, the Social and the Political in African American Art, Works from the Bank of America Collection, is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Aside from an occasion to contemplate more than 90 works by 36 African-American artists of the past century, the exhibition offers an intriguing object lesson in the intersection of corporate self-interest, a curator’s gifts and goals, and a museum’s need. It came to the MFA for free, thanks to Bank of America’s largesse, through a program launched in 2008. Does its charitable origins mean that, like the proverbial gift horse, you should like this exhibition?
Because Willis has done a yeoman’s job of drawing out thoughtful connections between works, the answer is probably yes. (Not, of course, that you have to like it, but that the exhibition is likable.) However, Mixing Metaphors isn’t a sexy show — because it consists mostly of photography and prints, it doesn’t bring a lot of oomph in terms of craft or scale. Nor does it confront you thrillingly with politics, with the exception of a grouping of goose bump-inducing Civil Rights-era photographs. Some seminal 20th-century African-American artists are missing, as are members of an exciting generation born since 1970 — one example of whom is Willis’s son, Hank Willis Thomas.
Most disappointingly, amazing artists are presented through minor works — a print, rather than a painting, of an exploded landscape by Julie Mehretu (born in 1970 in Ethiopia to one American and one African parent, she’s one of the younger artists included), or Martin Puryear, the sculptor renowned for spare constructions in wood and stone, who is represented by a woodcut. It sounds good that Romare Bearden and Sam Gilliam are in the show, but viewers familiar with their art will be underwhelmed by the available works. A small editioned piece by Fred Wilson — “Drop, Dripped” (2003), a white glass drip hovering over a pitch black drop that looks out with wide eyes — still packs punch as a racially charged but ambiguous narrative, but less so than the original, much larger installation it was based on.
Bank of America began loaning out exhibitions from its collection of 60,000 works after considering selling the collection but determining that it had greater value as a marketing tool. For museums that can use the financial support of a free exhibition provided by a corporate sponsor, the program is a boon. The MFA isn’t the only local institution to opt in; earlier this year the Tampa Museum of Art featured Miradas: Ancient Roots in Modern and Contemporary Mexican Art, Works from the Bank of America Collection. Critics of such corporate loan programs cite two main concerns: that museums may wind up growing the value of (bank-owned) artworks by bettering their exhibition pedigrees if they should go to auction, and that museums give up curatorial control when sponsors step in to the extent that BofA does by offering turnkey curated shows. I would also ask: In principle, shouldn’t an exhibition that stands to earn its sponsor tangible benefit through marketing really dazzle?
By engaging Willis as a highly respected and celebrity (in art world terms) curator, the bank mitigates some potential criticisms. (Willis dazzles.) She got her start professionally in the 1980s as a photographer who turned art historian when she realized how little had been written about African American photographers. Since then, she has authored more than a dozen books on the topic. The most compelling moments in Mixing Metaphors stem from her juxtapositions of other works around a core of historical images by photographers including James Van Der Zee, the portraitist who captured a vibrant black middle class during the Harlem Renaissance; Jamel Shabazz, known for his photographs of New York street life in the 1980s; and Civil Rights movement documentarian Ernest C. Withers, whose Memphis 1968 picture of striking sanitation workers holding aloft signs that read “I Am A Man” is one of the most affecting works in the show.
“I wanted people to know we weren’t only subjects, that we were also makers of images,” Willis says of her initial interest in the history of black photography.
The exhibit zings where Willis places those historic images in proximity to contemporary photographic works that add a conceptual twist or two. Most straightforwardly, a Dawoud Bey portrait of three teens in street clothes transports their youthful beauty and earnest personalities into the gallery like a gust of fresh air. Bey made the portrait 20 years ago with a rare 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera, but its warm-hued vision of the students, extended across a grid of six exposures, still brims with life. An unusual circular image by Carrie Mae Weems (recently announced as a 2013 MacArthur fellow) arranges three young girls, who in floral dresses lounging on a grassy lawn resemble wood nymphs prepped for Easter Sunday, into a photographic idyll of beauty. And, most self-reflexively, a suite of prints by Lorna Simpson reproduces blown-up fragments of vintage portraits of black and white subjects — specifically, the hands — with poetic captions, sometimes a single word, that invite viewers to imagine invisible histories for the people depicted, an effort that could require going against the grain of stereotype or prejudgment.
Enjoying such moments in Mixing Metaphors, I find myself wanting more. As for what the show could be? That’s easy for a bank to solve. It just takes money.