“When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South” at the Studio Museum in Harlem is worth a trip uptown. Karen Rosenberg called it “an engrossing but unresolved show”. She is right. My thoughts mirror hers in many ways and I see no point in rehashing the insider/outsider debate. For me, an expanded version of this show, focused on 10 artists rather than 30, would have been excellent. Kara Walker,Kerry James Marshall, and Xaviera Simmons all show beautifully from the contemporary “inside” while Beverly Buchanan, Thornton Dial and Henry Speller bring as much contemporary wow-factor from the outside.
The show looks like an elaborate art gallery presentation rather than a properly curated exhibition. The work here ranges from greatness to moderately useful. Kerry James Marshall has two monumental works, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, both from 2009. The overt blackness of these forms on their very dark blue/green and purple backgrounds puts the artist in league with Manet and Titian. These are not monsters (and the artist is clearly our Dr. Frankenstein) but Marshall has presented his least cluttered and most complicated subjects. Nude life-sized figures with minimal ornamentation let us consider the man’s slumped posture (the only real reference to Shelley’s updated golem) and the woman’s firm stance, hands on hips and defiant look. The Bride has all the power here. Each painting has a trompe l’oeil label for the figure, crinkled paper with hand scrawled “Frankenstein” or “Bride of Frankenstein”. It makes them feel old, despite the woman’s modern engagement ring and hoop earrings and the man’s alligator loafers. Marshall has made these character’s as prints (all black etchings) as well (not in this exhibition, but created at Paulson Bott press) which investigate these same two forms. Before I had seen these paintings, I had fallen much in love with the print of the Bride, her harsh gaze and her fearless disposition. These two paintings make the show worth seeing.
Aside from Marshall, Beverly Buchanan was a standout for me. Her small breadbox-sized houses made of old wood and glue are from the last few years. Each looks like it has fallen out of a James Castle sketch from his days of painting on cardboard scraps with ash. These tumble down houses, more the color of dusty unpaved roads than wood, feel like real places. These uninhabited structures immediately made me think of not only Castle but of Kathy Butterly’s beautiful show at Tibor de Nagy. Each small place had a life, a world that it belongs too. Buchanan’s work looks “outside” but would stand up to like sized modern art untouchables, say Picasso’s Guitar sculptures or Calder’s maquettes.
The show is informative and likely to introduce you to newer artists (Xaviera Simmons or Deborah Grant). It will also remind you that as much as you know about art, you are on the outside looking in at those who have found all that is possible under the heavens.