In the past, writer and critic Antwaun Sargent has often been thwarted in his ideas for gallery exhibitions, said they were too expensive or too ambitious.
Then he became a director at Gagosian.
Sargent can dream big now, which he has with his first exhibition, “Social Works,” which opens Thursday at the West 24th Street gallery location in Manhattan. The exhibit he curated features the work – most created in the past difficult year – of 12 black artists, all of whom are actively engaged in their communities through efforts such as food banks, mentoring and neighborhood revitalization.
“It all revolves around art as a social act,” Sargent, 32, said in a recent interview with the gallery. “Given the final year of the pandemic and the protests and history in which black artists operate, the artwork does more than just sit quietly on the wall. It’s really about the social implications of what it means to be Black in this world and to move in this world and to move in space and to take up space and to create space and to reinvent space.
With the tremendous funding and acreage from Gagosian to work with, Sargent was able to say yes to artists’ outsized ideas – like an operational Linda Goode Bryant urban farm, where vegetables will be harvested from the gallery, mounted on the walls, and available free of charge. for visitors; a huge spiral of crushed New York limestone by architect David Adjaye, his first large-scale sculpture; and an installation featuring five women from the New Haven Art Center NXTHVN, co-founded by Titus Kaphar, one of only two artists in the exhibition who are represented by Gagosian (the other is Theaster Gates).
“Complete freedom,” Sargent said, describing the leeway he had to develop the show. “Gagosian has phenomenal resources. I wanted to use those resources to make shows like this.
Hired in January, Sargent, author of “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion,” said he realizes he’s riding a judgmental moment in which galleries and museums face their history of exclusion of artists, curators and executives of color.
And some in the art world fear that the current enthusiasm for buying black artists, showcasing black art, and hiring black staff is shallow and short-lived.
But Larry Gagosian said he was determined to “a long overdue realignment of the art world.”
“As I move forward in my career, it occurs to me that I may not see things as well as I did 20 or 30 years ago,” he added. . “With someone like Antwaun, I can refresh my perspective. “
Sargent said he felt the gallery welcomed his contribution and wanted him to be successful. “I don’t feel like I’m in an environment to sink or swim in,” he said. “I have the impression of being supported.
Performers say they see Sargent’s hiring and his first show as an encouraging sign, though his resistance remains to be seen. “What is changing now is supply and demand,” said Bryant, who fought in 1974 for real estate brokers to rent space for her when she wanted to show black artists in her own gallery, Just Above. Midtown, known as JAM.
“The question is, is this a fundamental change in the way we perceive each other, in the way we establish hierarchies and divisions? she asked of Gagosian’s efforts. “I think it’s far too early to say ‘yes’.”
The “Social Works” exhibition presents the work of artists who make a concrete commitment to their community. Los Angeles artist Lauren Halsey, for example, launched Summaeverythang last summer, which brings organic fruits and vegetables to some of this city’s underserved neighborhoods.
Its installation in Gagosian looks south of Los Angeles through its signage to show how a community “fits into the physical landscape,” Sargent said, “making sure we understand the value of this language.” Halsey’s colorful paintings on wooden boxes refer to how big box retailers are replacing local merchants, Sargent added, to how gentrification often “takes away a community’s contributions.”
Rick Lowe, who in 1993 founded Project Row Houses, a nonprofit organization in Houston, offers a new series of paintings that commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma.
Carrie Mae Weems, who heads the community organization Social Studies 101, worked on the exhibit from her 2006 “Roaming” and “Museum” series of photographic self-portraits in which she stands amid monuments and buildings. institutions.
Gates, who works to revitalize the south side of Chicago, has an installation dedicated to DJ Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House Music” who died in 2014. The work includes over 5,000 records from Knuckles’ personal archives – many of them will be scanned as they play in the gallery – and a neon sign with the phrase “Burn, baby, burn”, which was used by the rioters in Watts after being popularized by disc jockeys.
Adjaye, who designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Studio Museum in the new Harlem building, currently under construction, used New York soil to create a curvilinear maze that references western architecture -African and looks like a rude Richard. Tight.
Adjaye said in an email that he “explores black spaces on the continent in relation to spaces of social gathering.” The sculpture invites people to walk through it, echoing Adjaye’s emphasis on inclusive and accessible architecture.
“These are fragments of rooms and buildings constructed from the earth,” he said, “which were the backdrop to black life.”
Sargent, who looked stylish the other day in a cream straw hat and Adidas Wales Bonner Samba shoes (long tongue and stitching), isn’t necessarily considered a disruptor, since he’s part of the world of art for a decade. (The works, like most of those in the gallery, are for sale; price on request.)
But he wants to expand the ways in which people can experience art beyond the aesthetic, by attracting visitors who would typically come to the gallery “to enjoy a [Gerhard] Richter show “as well as those who might be more interested in how art can be” at the service of my community “.
“As we try to rethink the institutional space, we should all be working together to try to imagine something else,” Sargent said, “pushing what else might be possible if we dream just a little beyond the tradition”.
He also said it was important for art spaces that show black images to better appeal to black audiences. “When you say something is about a group of people and they don’t come to see the work or financially benefit from the work, it makes me uncomfortable,” Sargent said. “If the work involves a certain community, why don’t you see that community in this museum? Why can’t you see this community in this gallery? “
Allana Clarke, a Trinidanian-American who works with black cosmetics, has two pieces on the show – one a poem molded from raw cocoa butter and beeswax that spells both “black.” “And” lack “; another sculpture made from the bonding glue used for hair extension weaves.
She said “Social Works” goes beyond the “signs of virtue and empty gestures” from many institutions over the past year. “It’s not that,” she said. “It’s a really complex view of the dark.”
“I hope this is the start of something that is impactful and lasting,” she added. “It’s completely late.”