Juan Logan: Whose Song Shall I Sing?

at Chicago Cultural Center, through April 21

Gary Simmons

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through May 19

The largest and bitterest work in Juan Logan’s Chicago Cultural Center show also gives the exhibit its title. In Whose Song Shall I Sing? (2001) Logan nearly covers one wall with a grid of 80 Aunt Jemima heads (other versions of the installation have had more) cast in resin and covered with powdered iron chemically treated to rust. Sometimes the woman from the pancake box sports a broad smile so dopey it seems she’s parodying white stereotypes of African-Americans. Other times her mouth is bound or covered, or a vulva obscures her features, or they’ve been smoothed over–almost obliterated. In his statement on this piece, Logan mentions “the historical treatment of African Americans. They have their eyes removed, their mouths muzzled, and their necks shackled.”

By connecting “benign” mass-culture images with more obvious signs of subjugation, Logan argues that sweet stereotypes can be destructive too. The broad grin can be seen as a sign of oppression and opposition at once: Logan says he’s seen “old black men” act “as humble as they needed to be to get by….Grinning wasn’t always grinning.” The piece’s scale suggests the multitudes affected by racism, and while Logan uses different faces, there are only 14 variations, none of which seems truly individual.

Logan, an African-American born in 1946 who was raised and still lives in North Carolina, has made paintings and prints, though this exhibit includes only this installation and sculptures. Shaped by his southern heritage, he writes that his art has dealt with “social change and social injustice” since 1967. The 11 sculptures from his “Reliquaries for America” series are at once biting and elegiac, even mournful; based on both Christian reliquaries and storyboards used by the Luba tribe in Africa, they offer commentary vivified by their aesthetic and emotional engagement.

All begin with a houselike shape. At the center of the ironically titled Nurturing (1997) is what looks like an old piece of found metal (Logan actually purchased an embossed piece of tin and painted it with tar, allowing small flecks of the original white paint to show through). Mounted horizontally just below it is a similarly colored nightstick. African-American artists in recent decades have often foregrounded discarded materials, a reference to their marginalized social position as well as to such black cultural traditions as cuisine based on animal parts that whites disdained. Here the metal surface’s centrality and definition encourage the viewer to focus on every indentation and fleck, finding beauty in its mix of design and blankness (some of Logan’s sculptures include images). By contrast the nightstick brims with meaning, its aggressive, overdetermined presence juxtaposed with the gentler, almost meditative vision that finds redemption in the ordinary. The difference is significant, suggesting that the two views are utterly incompatible.

Logan generally reclaims symbols of oppression and uses them for his own purposes. Each of the three objects in Other Considerations (1997) has its own raw, assertive power, its own texture and weight. Fastened to the front of the old piece of tin Logan purchased for his house shape is a slightly smaller pointed wooden board, once used for tanning hides, to which is attached a pair of antique slave shackles. The chain’s rust patterns and the wood’s cracks and discolorations don’t weaken these elements but give them a totemic power–and the forms suggest multiple meanings (among them, Logan told me, a Christian cross and a white hood).

Perhaps the most moving piece here is Home (1999). At the upper left is a painting Logan made of the Madonna, covered in gold leaf and with a halo, next to a stick figure. Both are set against a large piece of painted tin Logan punctured many times. The traditional “high art” image, associated with European culture, paired with a figure any child could draw suggests coexistence and equality, not opposition. Meanwhile both seem at sea in a background haunted by absence, perhaps violence. Yet near the center of the hole-filled metal is a raised heartlike shape based on an Adinkra symbol, Logan says, expressing the importance of acknowledging the past. Partly covering it is a simple metal shape whose splayed top suggests a flower. Despite Logan’s specific references, there’s also something universal at work: the quest for identity, for a form that might confirm who we are, for a sign of hope in a world haunted by dislocation, ruin, and emptiness.

Absence is also the theme of Gary Simmons’s “Erasure Drawings,” which he smudges by hand. He first used this technique on racist caricatures he copied from 1930s and 1940s cartoons, but the erased images among the 36 recent works at the Museum of Contemporary Art are not so obvious. Many of the strongest include text: in I Wish, I Wish, I Wish (2001) the title is almost illegible. The smudging recalls Logan’s Aunt Jemimas: both suggest the adumbration of the self. But Simmons addresses oppression more directly. Corn Liquor (2000) smudges four lines of text–“corn liquor / white lightning / rotgut / blue John”–hitting back at the cheap booze that has historically kept people “happy.” Ex-Rex blurs a chair on a pedestal, attacking a symbol of authority.

The large wall drawing Ramshackle Tumble (2002), made for the MCA’s installation of this traveling exhibit, is engaging, showing three abstract forms–rectangular, cylindrical, and circular–blurred to suggest rotation. But like many of Simmons’s other less referential pieces, it’s not completely successful: Simmons is just not as skillful with pure form as he is with content. Better is the funny, bitter sculpture Here, Piggy Piggy (2002): the motorized heads of two white hunters wearing vacant grins swivel from time to time. They look upward, but there’s no transcendence–these figures seem soulless.

Simmons, an African-American born in New York City in 1964, works in other media as well, including photography and video. But despite similarities between his work and Logan’s, there’s a world of difference. Logan’s profoundly emotional art asks the viewer to find meaning and pleasure in each speck, area of color, and collision of forms. His pieces repay attention in a way that Simmons’s cooler, breezier, more conceptual work does not. And though the MCA’s booklet announces that Simmons’s “haunting, memorable works…address personal and collective experiences of race and class,” it doesn’t acknowledge that addressing race and class has become a cliche. Yet it’s Simmons who gets the more prestigious venue and an elegant hardcover catalog. Perhaps others genuinely believe he’s the more rewarding artist. Or it could be that today many favor more disengaged, even blase art that requires less intensive viewing.