Before I even arrived at Hammonds House Museum, a few people had hinted at the unabashed nature of the work on show. “It’s raw,” one quipped in an email. The mature content disclaimer on the front door had me grinning in anticipation of work that would cross the bounds of propriety.
Incendiary Exposure features over 45 works by Daryl Harris and Michael Morgan, supplemented by selected works from the Hammonds House permanent collection. There’s a lot to look at, and I found myself dividing the singular show into smaller, more digestible, and cohesive parts.
The exhibition sprawls through several rooms of the two-story Victorian-style house. The first few minutes felt like walking through a recently deceased person’s home minutes after some very diligent house cleaners had neatly arranged everything just so, all the way down to the antique furniture and bulbous-lipped “mammy” statuettes from the museum’s collection.
Daryl Harris spent years teaching inner-city children in Milwaukee, and his work is informed by the depravity and hopelessness he witnessed among his young impressionable students. With the skill of an insightful educator, he paints scenes that highlight the corrosive effects of popular stereotypes of black identity. Whether considered on its own or within the context of this show, his work has a clear rhetorical and artistic direction and is skillfully rendered. Harris confronts the coercive violence of epithets and popular stereotypes, cleverly illustrating its lineage, from retrograde caricatures that are now unacceptable in polite company to the present day’s widely popular portrayals of black men. What’s more, Harris highlights that this process has largely been undertaken for profit because such images still sell.
Michael Morgan‘s work includes drawings, paintings, and, most memorably, a series of more than a dozen dioramas containing magazine cutouts of nude, muscular black men in homosexually suggestive compositions who are caged within wooden boxes and chicken wire. These dioramas struck me as unfinished, perhaps intentionally so. Unlike Harris’s well-rendered paintings, Morgan succeeds in evoking shock, but the craftsmanship falls short of inspiring awe. The series deals with themes of social stigmas, repression, and shame as part of an ongoing dialogue within the black community about homosexuality. This discourse grows particularly salient in light of the support black voters gave to Proposition 8.
As I continued to explore the museum, I found myself often shaking my head and smiling incredulously. Such was the seriousness of the subject matter and the unfettered graphic nature of many of the works on display. A brusque friend once told me that “subtlety is for the timid,” and I remembered the quote as I took in the show.
Much of Incendiary Exposure is powerful, but many people will have understandable anxieties about discussing racially charged issues and may recoil from its unabashed political incorrectness. However, I found that brazenness wholly appropriate for the artists’ themes, repression, and denial.
The exhibition Incendiary Exposure continues at the Hammonds House Museum through June 27. The museum will host double-feature screenings of films by Marlon Riggs on Thursday, June 17, and Thursday, June 24.