The Nevada Museum of Art’s current exhibition The World Stage puts in a great deal of hustle to live up to its title. Entering the Museum’s third floor, we are greeted by a Kehinde Wiley. The focus on this oversized painting reveals the intentions of this exhibition’s curators from the beginning.
Wiley’s work, in its most platonic form, is about the redistribution of glory—a symbolic assignment of merit created by the appropriation of portraiture techniques. Wiley has built an incredible career portraying young Black men in hoodies assuming the poses and trappings of royalty in classical portraiture. In many ways, The World Stage applies the Wiley toolkit to the increasingly urgent dialogue around identity and social justice in America.
The inkwell for this diversity conversation is the massive art collection of Jordan Schnitzer. Thankfully, Schnitzer’s collection provides a broad enough palette to render a portrait with sufficient color.
The juxtapositions and interpolations made in The World Stage are impressive if occasionally threadbare. The historical acrobatics applied to link high-profile, white producers of art to lesser-known/anticipated BIPOC creators are admirable. From my perspective as a fledgling Black curator with exhibitions at the Nevada Humanities Gallery in Las Vegas and the Palos Verdes Arts Center in Southern California, I am acutely aware of the issue of performative “wokeness” in fine arts spaces—particularly in this year of activism and unrest. The rush of previously unconcerned arts spaces to define their political stances as forward-facing is at an all-time high. Being even a mildly competent artist of color has become something of a commodity in the months after the murder of George Floyd. The increasing fervor for institutions large and small to be taken to task over their long negligence regarding the work of BIPOC has resulted in many a strange bedfellow.
I will not say in this instance, though, that the Nevada Museum of Art is engaging an exhibition contrary to its modus operandi. This museum has gone out of its way to exhibit a number of diverse voices in its recent history. It should be noted that this exhibition was hung in March and took years to assemble. The museum’s history of shows like Without You I Am Nothing, the work of land art genius Maya Lin; Washoe/Western Shoshone master draftsman Jack Malotte; or the Tilting the Basin exhibition that I was privileged to be a participant in, lend credence to a history of diverse programming.
This museum is certainly not the greatest offender when it pertains to the glut of course-corrective exhibitions. Do I feel they are emphasizing the diversity of voices in this exhibition as an abdication to the current political climates? Of course. All of that said, the exhibition’s curators have produced some strange and beautiful bedfellows.
To place a Wendy Red Star print in the same exhibition as a Jeff Koons is a statement of intended cultural equity. I understand in theory the value of Koons’ inclusion. But I want to see 1,000 more Wendy Red Star prints. I don’t care if I ever see a Jeff Koons again.
There are so many lovely trysts in this show. Seeing work by Helen Frankenthaler and Wendy Red Star exist in dialogue is powerful. Frankenthaler was a unsung trailblazer in the group of 20th-century American abstractionists that included Jackson Pollock. Red Star blazes a different trail through historical American imagery. Both labor to dismantle the constraints of visual worlds laid out long before they were born. Their kinship is subtle but clear. The proximity of their placement is incredibly well played.
Julie Mehretu’s ecstatic urban abstractions are placed beside the quiet kineticism of Leonardo Drew’s wall sculpture. They dance so beautifully together it’s surprising I’d never seen them paired until now. The “Reigning Queens” series by Andy Warhol (another artistic lodestone whose work I could do with far less exposure to) straddles a wall opposing Mildred Howard’s more radiant and compelling take on what constitutes a queen. This is the tip-of-the-iceberg stuff. This exhibition has themes and ideas that run deep into rugged and beautiful waters. Questions about domesticity, activism, and cultural identity are all organized and then let loose by beautifully written directive text. It would take many more visits and paragraphs than I have time to explore.
The penultimate problem with The World Stage is that, while it seems gregarious and complimentary to equivocate high-end white artists with lesser-known artists of color, it exemplifies a kind of forced historical condescension that generates problematic hierarchies within global art institutions. The notion that correlation is a form of estimation is deeply flawed, and a sign of poor allyship. I feel that an exhibition of similar consideration without the inclusion of “blue chip” art stars would have been an even greater affirmation of the importance of some of these lesser-known creatives.
The ultimate irksome inclusion (Jeff Koons aside) is the addition of a comments screen with an attached QR code displaying remarks made by visitors, a sort of soapbox space that exposes deep insecurity leading to an error in judgment. I love to see a space created for discussion of such a dynamic and challenging show, but its inclusion at the end of the exhibition space alongside the work itself feels like an awkward mixture of self-congratulation and controversy bating.
Thankfully, the sin of inviting public comment is washed away by a panoply of strong works. Caitlin Cherry’s “Fruit Molotov Cocktail” provides a majestic deconstruction of common pictorial and narrative themes. Lorna Simpson’s “Wigs” generates such an intense aura it nearly overwhelms its exhibition mates. Thankfully, two of Vanessa German’s “Power Figures” redistribute the exhibition’s collective energy with their terrifying radiance.
I’m an eager and frequent consumer of art shows, and it’s rare that I’ve seen such Olympian, intellectually succulent feats of juxtaposition. These artistic dialogues are the ultimate triumph of this exhibition. I look forward to seeing the Nevada Museum of Art continue to engage such difficult and inspiring subject matter in the future, and considering they are taking public comments, may I suggest they take strides to hand the curatorial reins to the same BIPOC creatives they are so eager to trot out in times of political unrest? I would find it deeply satisfying to see what kinds of unique interpolations they may come up with when given access to a similarly broad collection.
The World Stage is on view at the Nevada Museum of Art through Feb. 7, 2021.
- A Virtual Art Discussion on identity and power in the works of six Black artists from the exhibition takes place at 4 pm Nov. 5. Register here.
- Cheyenne/Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds will discuss printmaking, text-based art, and his relationship to the landscape in a Zoom talk, noon- 1 pm, Nov. 6. Register here.
We also recommend
- Vanessa German’s Oct. Zoom talk on “The Ecosystem of Community”
- “Love Front Porch,” Vanessa German’s TEDx talk from the Pittsburgh State Prison
- The 2014 PBS documentary Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace, $7.99 to buy or $3.99 to rent on YouTube Movies
- “Traveling & Making,” an Art21 episode on Leonardo Drew
This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.