Art that's designed to get under our skin

Adrian Piper exposes our racial divide in hopes of bridging it.

November 14, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

Art exhibitions sometimes seem designed to keep the museum-going public happy and reinforce generally accepted notions of beauty. Amid growing pressure to increase attendance at exhibitions and a desire not to offend these days (think Rudy Giuliani), it's understandable.

So a show that makes us squirm -- and pushes us to re-examine some of our most deeply ingrained beliefs -- seems all the more unusual.

The exhibition, "Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, 1965-2000," on view at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, through Jan. 15, doesn't allow you to leave feeling complacent. Piper, a philosophy professor at Wellesley College who is considered a progenitor of art works informed by race and gender, pushes her audience members to deal with issues that many of us are happier ignoring.

Much of her work explores how Americans think about race: how many whites, perhaps especially those who dub themselves "liberals," like to think that racism ended with the civil rights movement; the concept of blacks "passing" for white; how racism of any kind stems from an inability to feel self-worth except through presuming superiority over someone else, someone different. And, though Piper began her career as a conceptual artist, she melds form and content in such a way as to create art that has a profoundly personal impact.

That, of course, is the point. As Piper remarks in an interview that appears in the show's catalog, "It's laudable to depict and analyze issues of racism. But my work really does not function in that way. I actually want to change people. I want my work to help people to stop being racist (whether they ask for that help or not). Just as movies and encounter groups can change people, so, maybe, can my art."

Piper grew up in Manhattan in a family that identified itself as black. Her father, a real estate lawyer, was one-eighth black, and her mother, a college administrator, was one-quarter African-American with some Caribbean ancestry as well. Piper studied art at the School of Visual Arts in New York, philosophy at City College, then received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University.

In a 1981 self-portrait drawn in pencil, she emphasizes her flowing curly hair, her broad nose and her full lips and titles the work "Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features."

Fourteen years later, Piper creates another self-portrait, using a crayon to alter a photograph, which she titles, "Self-Portrait As A Nice White Lady." The woman in the photograph seems to look directly at her viewers; above her head is a cartoon balloon reading: "Whut choo lookin at, mofo."

The exhibition may speak more pointedly to whites, as members of a privileged group, but few gallery-goers, no matter who they are, will leave unaffected. Viewing Piper's works is like hitting your funny bone: A blow that initially jars then leaves an uncomfortable tingling impossible to ignore.

"One of the most important things about this show is that it can be a catalyst for personal thinking about racist attitudes," says Maurice Berger, adjunct curator at UMBC and author of "White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness" (Farrar Straus & Giroux).

"What Adrian is doing is not just about black and white issues. It is about xenophobia. It is about fear of anything that is different from you and me. And it speaks to men and women, blacks and whites, Asians, all Americans."

In a 1989 work titled "Free #2," Piper presents two grainy black-and-white photographs with silk-screened text. The first is a picture of a black man hanging from a tree. Red words, superimposed on the photograph, say: "Land of the Free." The second photo depicts a black man being arrested. His arms are cuffed behind his back, and he is being pinned to the ground by two heavily armed policeman who are aided by a German shepherd. The words say, "Home of the Brave."

Berger arranged the show chronologically, deliberately beginning and ending it with works in which Piper depicts her parents. "Adrian's articulation of her own journey will ease the spectator into perhaps thinking about events in their own lives," says the curator, senior fellow at New York's Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School for Social Research. "She is forcing us to draw a brutally honest portrait of ourselves in our own minds. She constantly insists that the spectator self-examines."

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