The Shape of Things: Hard Edged Exhibition Features Artists of African Descent

It can be problematic for a creator to be billed as a “black artist,” as that attaches a preconceived notion about what their work will look like, represent and convey. This predicament is stared down triumphantly in “Hard Edged: Geometrical Abstraction and Beyond,” the newest exhibition at the California African American Museum. The exhibition features dozens of artists of African descent, working in a variety of media, playing with geometric forms. Many of the pieces are more straight-forwardly abstract; others are more didactic.

Perhaps the most arresting synthesis of form and identity comes from local artist, April Bey. Her installation, “Picky Head,” is multilayered in its ethos as well as its execution.

Bey grew up in the Bahamas where the titular phrase is a dig thrown at people without processed “white” hair. Crowdsourcing from Tumblr, Bey compiled hundreds of selfies of men and women who wear their hair natural to create a patchwork canvas. She then dripped pounds of hair relaxer over this backdrop, and molded it into letters that spell out “Picky Head.”

What’s so striking about “Hard Edged” is seeing a work as contemporary and topical as Bey’s side by side with the work of a seminal predecessor like Doyle Lane. His untitled 1976 work that appears in the show is representative of his famous “clay paintings” – wall-hanging, flat minimalist sculptures.

“Hard Edged” features a handful of such veterans, with work from the California African American Museum’s permanent collection, as well as a number of working local artists. One sees not only the direct lineage of influence that weaves through a half-century of artists of African descent, but also the diversity in their work’s styles, themes and politics over time.

It is a shame to imagine “Hard Edged”  a show featuring exclusively artists of African descent, mounted at a museum not traditionally billed as an art institution being received as anything less than a crucial modern art event. That this work should necessitate such a specific platform for its display is an unfortunate reality of the art world. And so much of the work in the show echoes this reality. Even hard lines and minimal forms can communicate multitudes about how we see the world when it seems unwilling or unable to see us.

Hard Edged: Geometrical Abstraction and Beyond” is on display at the California African American Museum Aug. 13, 2015 through April 24, 2016. Admission to the museum is free.