‘30 Americans’ At The Corcoran Takes On Race

iona rozeal brown's gorgeous cross-cultural images were a highlight of the show.

I went to the opening of 30 Americans last night, a new exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art designed to spotlight the most important African-American artists from the last 30 years. The show’s somewhat inconsistent — the Basquiats, for example, aren’t particularly compelling representations of his work — but there are some wonderful, provocative pieces in it. And it’s refreshing to see all of the characters’ reference points and artistic frames in conversation with each other.

My three favorite pieces felt like a fascinating combination of the past, present, and future. Lorna Simpson’s display of gorgeous prints of hairpieces on felt next to phrases like “first impressions count” is simultaneously witty and cutting about the sense that African-American women have to radically transform their hair or hide it altogether. iona rozeal brown’s gorgeous, detailed images combine traditional Japanese portraits with darkened skin, corn rows, and extravagantly painted fingernails to play with how signifiers of black culture have been adopted in Japan. And Wangechi Mutu’s anemone-like collages incorporate eyes, lips, motorcycle wheels, and beads and glitter to suggest something post-human but still engaged with race.

And I’m always happy to see Kehinde Wiley in a show, and I’m glad to see him back in Washington after the hip-hop portraiture show he was a part of at the Smithsonian American Art museum. I could look at his lush, giant “Sleep,” for ages. I just wish the Corcoran had hung it on one wall and Mickalene Thomas’s “Baby I Am Ready Now” alone on the opposite one so the two would be in direct and clear juxtaposition, a man asleep and a woman waiting. It’s a good example of why even if the show isn’t perfectly staged, it’s very much worth seeing.