"Sweet Funk-An Introspective," the Brooklyn Museum's sampling of 10 years of Sanford Biggers's work (on view through Jan. 8), centers on the museum's recently acquired Blossom (2007). Shown to advantage in a skylighted, domed gallery, it features a piano skewered by a substantial tree but nonetheless delivering, player-piano-style, a sonorous rendition of "Strange Fruit." Several of the surrounding works share the song's reference to lynching, including Cheshire (2007), a video that shows a number of black men trying one or two at a time, in all weather and with varying success, to climb a large tree; its soundtrack is another profoundly mournful version of "Strange Fruit," performed by New York singer Imani Uzuri. Also titled Cheshire is a 5½-foot-wide illuminated sign in the shape of a big, grinning mouth (2008). With glaring impertinence, the lurid red mouth hangs high above Blossom and flashes, in racing sequence, its many lightbulb teeth.
Kalimba II (2002) involves a piano sawed in half and reconstituted. The two parts face each other but are divided by a wall: another image of music balked. In Bittersweet the Fruit (2002), a jewel-like video monitor set into a tree limb offers scrambled imagery of a piano and jumbled music; headphones dangle like nooses from the branch. Approaching racial violence from a different angle is Lotus (2007), a big glass disc held in an iron ring like a giant embroidery hoop, or the frame of a rose window. The delicate, floral-seeming patterns etched into the glass actually diagram the holds of cargo ships filled with shackled Africans.
The two-channel video Shuffle (The Carnival Within), 2009, alone in a room, features the Brazilian-born, Germany-based performer Ricardo Castillo. We see him applying clown makeup over his brown skin (in alternating shots, a child does the same) and examining the Cheshire sign, which hangs threateningly from a tree; Castillo is trussed to the tree at one point, but ultimately walks away.
In Shake (2011), a single-channel video projected onto a large freestanding screen that dominated the SculptureCenter's "Sanford Biggers: Cosmic Voodoo Circus," Castillo is, as in Shuffle, a troubadour, roaming Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, from its windswept oceanfront to its nighttime streets. He visits a coffin maker, stealing a gauzy, spangled coat with which he replaces his bright-blue blazer, adding silvery thigh-high boots with 5-inch heels: a death-defying shape-shifter in a hypnotically unstable environment.
Shake was joined by a handful of new works, including a sculpture of a bare-breasted red giantess in a massive raffia skirt, standing in a striped, transparent circus tent (A Jóia Do Orixá, 2011). Spotlights occasionally roved the cavernous space, illuminating the two trapeze swings (Backend Trick, 2011) that hung from its ceiling and regularly lurched into hectic motion. Despite its circus theme, or maybe because of it, this installation was darker in spirit than the Brooklyn Museum survey; it seems Biggers has lately been suppressing conceptual and visual elegance in favor of something more menacing, and more direct.
Photo: View of Sanford Biggers’s “Cosmic Voodoo Circus,” 2011, showing Constellation 6.0 (foreground), Cheshire (On Tilt), back left, and A Jóia Do Orixá (back right); at the SculptureCenter.