In his second solo exhibition at Invisible-Exports, “Hard & Fast,” Clifford Owens shared the stage with a host of contemporary artists, showcasing performances, paintings, and sculptures by others that he responded to in various ways. His ongoing desire to pursue collaborative models of artistic production and emphasize the primacy of the body underscored this exhibition, as it did Anthology (2011), his well-known performance at MoMA PS1.
Anthology, inspired by 1960s Fluxus event scores and the body-based endurance works that followed, redressed the elision of seminal contributions by African-American artists from the canon—Ben Patterson, Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, and Sherman Fleming among them. Owens invited these artists and more famous figures like Kara Walker, William Pope.L, and Glenn Ligon to submit scores for him to perform. Providing written instructions, diagrams, and musical notation, the scores were alternately mundane (Nengundi’s Sweep) and incendiary (Walker’s imperative to “French kiss an audience member. Force them against a wall and demand sex.”). Most required interaction with viewers and engaged issues of race; William Pope.L addressed the notion of blackness itself (“Be African-American. Be very African-American.”).
In the Invisible-Exports exhibition, references to Anthology were made in a powerful series of performances by young black female artists that Owens curated to launch the show. Pope.L’s score was invoked by Rashayla Marie Brown, for example, who wove it into an incantation, “I’m afraid I’ll be forgotten,” as she pretended to call her ancestors on her phone to assuage her fear. Another highlight was Marisa Williamson’s performance After Kara Walker/Before Clifford Owens, which involved a game of charades led by the artist’s antebellum persona; one of the pantomimes acted out was the title of Walker’s 2007–08 traveling museum survey, “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.” Owens’s role in the performances was minimal. After each concluded, he quietly photographed the standing audience, arranging members in the center of the gallery or capturing individuals in close-up as they crowded against the wall. A selection of the resulting images, which were surprisingly theatrical, were presented in the gallery’s back room.
The main gallery contained works (all 2016) that Owens asked David Choi, Andy Cross, David Hammons, Matthew Day Jackson, Rashid Johnson, and Eric Mack to make for him to modify or alter. Owens’s contributions ranged from filling the small negative spaces of a geometric sculpture by Choi with Vaseline to creating a large-scale photograph in which two outlines of his body, drawn with a flashlight and captured through multiple exposures, flank a black-and-white photogram by Jackson of another bodily imprint.
Like the photographic documents that were conceived as “reaction” performances, thus turning the audience into participants (however unwittingly), the line where one artist’s work ends and Owens’s begins was deliberately blurred. In this sense, the artist’s overriding agenda to revise the canon was well served. More than simply expanding the scope of who is included, the show offered a contrary model, one in which authorship becomes collective and fluid rather than being singular and discrete. It isn’t a new model, but Owens’s decision to embody it in a solo exhibition was laudable, and an act of subversive generosity.
One lesson gleaned from Clifford Owens’s “Anthology” is that submitting to other people’s instructions doesn’t rule out first-person provocation. For this project, Owens solicited performance scores from a multigenerational and interdisciplinary range of African-American artists, 26 of whom responded; PS1 offered Owens a summer residency to enact them and then an exhibition that documents the results. There are also a number of live performances scheduled during the show.
The scores naturally vary enormously, not only in content but also in degrees of specificity, and Owens has taken liberties with all. To William Pope.L’s cryptic prompt, “Be African American. Be Very African American,” Owens responded by having a young black performer follow a long and winding path through the building, marked by a line of broad white tape; the line—but, notably, neither the performer nor Owens—is shown in a series of photographs. More dynamic is the artist’s interpretation of Lorraine O’Grady’s similarly open-ended score (roughly: think of “another”—animal, vegetable or mineral—and create a record of your thoughts). In this case, Owens interacted suggestively—in fact, the videos documenting this performance are frankly, and hilariously, lewd—with a chicken and various cut-open vegetables.
Among other script donors are Maren Hassinger, Terry Adkins, Glenn Ligon and Senga Nengudi. In response to Steffani Jemison’s Regret Piece, which urges, gnomically, “Experience Regret. Do Not Apologize,” Owens (who is 40 years old and black) had himself photographed while being patted on the ass by one young white guy and having his shirt ripped open by another, and finally standing still while a young white woman pours what looks like a can of beer over his head. In the final image, Owens’s face is a portrait of wide-eyed, open-mouthed outrage.
But most provocative by far is Kara Walker’s score, which called for Owens to “French kiss an audience member. Force them against a wall and demand sex. Then turn tables and assume the role of victim. Accuse your attacker. Seek the help of others. Describe your ordeal. Repeat.” In a pre-exhibition performance documented with photographs and a video, and another undertaken after the show opened, Owens was faithful to the first element only, which was plenty. At the performance I saw, another performer read the instructions aloud, repeatedly, while Owens strode up and down a hallway crowded with a mostly young, multiracial audience. At longish intervals, Owens chose one after another onlooker, and kissed him or her, with energy but neither aggression nor great displays of passion. Instead, the audience members’ acute self-consciousness—and furtive observation of one another—provided the dramatic tension.
Violating the boundary that separates artist from audience is of course a mainstay of performance art, and Owens has crossed it before, although this is the first time he has brought race to the forefront (in part to redress the dearth of attention to black artists working in the discipline). But by resisting, however variably, the instructions he received, he also acts out intramural tensions in a way that further complicates—and enlivens—questions of who is in charge, who is watching and who is being seen.
Additional performances are scheduled for Feb. 11 and Mar. 11. The show travels to MOCA, North Miami, in late 2012.
Photos: Clifford Owens: Anthology (Kara Walker), 2011, one of five C-prints, 16 by 24 inches. (left) Anthology (William Pope.L), 2011, one of 20 pigment prints on aluminum, 14 by 11 inches. (right) Both at MoMA PS1.