Museum Admission: “30 Americans” at Tacoma Art Museum

We all know there is power in looking. What we should be looking at, right now, are the truths that are difficult to face. The truths of what it means to be an “Other” in America. What it means to be a black American or a Mexican American or a female American. What it means to live in a culture that labels you as “different.” The exhibition “30 Americans” at Tacoma Art Museum offers just such an opportunity for looking. – Lauren Gallow, Seattle Contributor

Rashid Johnson | The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Thurgood), 2008. Lambda print, ed. 2/5. Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection.

Behind each gaze, each look, is a way of seeing the world that nobody else can truly know. My experience of this world is 100% different from your experience and your experience and your experience. And experience is what shapes one’s reality. Experience is what gives it form. “30 Americans” presents 30 varying perspectives on this question of the mystery of individual experience. The 30 perspectives in this show are all from artists identifying as African American—a group from whom we desperately need to hear right now. Often, the experiences visualized in this exhibit are ones that are difficult to face.

Kara Walker | Camptown Ladies, 1998. Paper, 8 x 55 feet. Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection.

For Kara Walker, the beauty of the reality seduces you into the ugliness. The familiarity tricks you into seeing the unseemly. Her paper cutouts—intricately, delicately, painstakingly shaped—reveal scenes of the grotesque. They reveal the worst stereotypes of blackness—savage, barbaric beastiality—but in a medium that recalls the stately early-18th-century practice of silhouette cutting. In her work, Walker outlines the fact that race relations in this country are never as clear-cut as they may seem.

Hank Willis Thomas | Who Can Say No to a Gorgeous Brunette?” From the Unbranded series. 1970/2007. Digital C print, edition 1 of 5. Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection.

Hank Willis Thomas similarly explores the seductiveness of the stereotype. He points out that American advertising—by far the largest advertising market in the world—has in fact been banking on stereotypes all along. “Advertising’s success,” Thomas notes, “rests on its ability to reinforce generalizations about race, gender, and ethnicity, which can sometimes be true, and sometimes horrifying, but which at a core level are a reflection of the way a culture views itself or its aspirations.” In his work, Thomas seems both seduced and disgusted by the idea that stereotypes are derived from truths. Ultimately, he asks us to question what happens when these “truths” are ascribed to biology rather than to culture.

Lorna Simpson | Wigs (Portfolio), 1994. 21 lithographs on felt and 17 lithographed felt text panels. Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection.

Perhaps the larger aim of “30 Americans” is not so much to reveal the “truth” of individual experience—can we ever really convey that “truth” to another?—but to show how our internal experience is shaped by outside cultural forces. In “Wigs (Portfolio)”, Lorna Simpson points out just how much we rely on these social conventions to organize and order human experience. Lithographed images of hair seem to float above the felt onto which they are printed, the hazy images echoing the fuzziness of the felt. In this work, Simpson shows us that however nice and neat we might try to make them, these social distinctions are always a bit blurry. And as much comfort as it may bring to categorize people based on things like hair color or hair type, one can’t help but wonder about the darker side of these social stratifications. Especially when they have to do with race.

Glenn Ligon | America, 2008. Neon sign and paint, ed. of 1 plus AP. Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection.

Glenn Ligon literally shines a light on this, the dark side of America. His piece in the show, a neon sign spelling out “America” that’s painted black on one side, flickers on and off in an unpredictable pattern. Ligon presents two sides of America, with the sign’s painted dark side only emphasizing the brightness of the wall side behind. We can’t have one without the other, he seems to say. When the sign turns off, however, the contrast is lost and “America” stands in total darkness. Ligon suggests that America is both dependent on and stifled by these binary categories, these divisions and differences. We need them, and are simultaneously imprisoned by them. Here, the bright hope of “America,” the dreams and aspirations and promises that get invested in that word and in this place, can flicker off in a heartbeat.

The best we can do at this moment in history is to look at these truths, both the horrific and the shiny, and give them equal weight. “30 Americans” gives us just such an opportunity. It gives us the chance to take a look at what scares us, at what the truth of another person’s experience might be. And in the process, it challenges us to take a look at ourselves.


Lauren Gallow is a writer, editor, and artist located in Seattle.

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