Important Exhibitions at the Studio Museum of Harlem

05/14/2015 04:40 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

There's an abundance of reasons to visit the current set of exhibitions at the Studio Museum of Harlem (the ones on view close on June 8). I'll get to the art itself, but there are some overarching considerations.

The Studio Museum is charged, or charges itself , with a set of social and aesthetic objectives. These include the legitimation of a field, fostering innovation, establishing standards of quality and serving multiple publics (from the neighborhood to professional field to the museum-going world. And it must do all of this within the tight restrictions of New York City real estate. Thelma Golden, the experienced director, has to perform, simultaneously, these complementary and sometimes competing objectives. The Studio Museum exists in the thrillingly intricate and changing environment of African-American art and in the geography of a virulently gentrifying Harlem.

A visit is warranted immediately because the now-displayed array of focused installations exemplifies how the Museum deals with its multiple objectives.. Taken together, the ensemble projects a sense of self, a sense of purpose, qualities that mark it as a remarkable incubator of artists and ideas.

No moment since its founding has been free of existential challenges for this venture, born out of the smoke and ruins of the1968 uprising. Now, there is an ever wider demand by institutions and collectors for the understanding African American art--a demand sparked and encouraged by the hard work of the Studio Museum). There is the challenge of having more public and private galleries in the intellectual space, including, of course, almost every big city art museum. The continuing emergence of the Brooklyn Museum as a healthily collaborative site for the celebration of black artists is a providential example. In addition to the process of mainstreaming in the US context, the Studio Museum has always placed Harlem and African-American art in a global frame.

And then there is the new Whitney, that brilliant tribute to American art, a luxury liner of a building, moored to the foot of the High Line. It too is more conscious of race in its 21st century embodiment, To achieve its multiple objectives, then, the Studio Museum must be lovingly resourceful. And that can be demonstrated through the art that it shows.

Two of the current mini-exhibitions are selections from the Museum's permanent collection--and they demonstrate how rich that collection is. Concealed, is about various forms of masking and disguise, about spirits and rituals. Curated by Hallie Ringle, Senior Curatorial Assistant, the show, as its introduction notes, is about the multiplicity of roles that masks and the idea of masking play in African and African-American imagination and reality.

The works--each and every one of them-- is stellar There are remarkable works by masters. The 1964 Conjur Woman, by Romare Bearden, is a photo projection on paper. Mask is a late fiberglass and paper collage by Elizabeth Catlett. Its austere, non-expressive exterior cradles yellowing headline clips pasted to the inside of the skull, tying the pensive features to thoughts of lynching and the Vietnam War.

Concealed also contains work by younger artists nourished by the Museum. In this exhibit there are, for example, a striking set of drawings by Zoe Charlton, done in 2005, and a playful, yet dramatic 2013 abstraction of a face made of found objects (including a plastic baseball bat and a video cassette) by the inventive Romuald Hazoume. The Kenyan artist, Cyrus Kabiru, has two of his more or less trademark wearable glasses, made of perforated scrap metal, glass beads and plastic bottle caps(also 2013).

Strengths of the Studio Museum of Harlem comes through in a second exhibition, here of portraits, more or less, and largely from the permanent collection. Curated by Amanda Hunt and confined to the lower lobby, with its low ceilings and dull lighting, the show can be appreciated for its virtues of variety, quality and as a kind of index to possibilities for further investigation. The program notes suggest that the works are exemplars of "self-fashioning " with an emphasis on exploring position and status.

There's a beautiful Beauford Delaney, The Picnic (1940) that speaks of Western European influences on American artists. There is a strong Romare Bearden, Two Women (1969) and a fresh and vital Mickalene Thomas, Afro Goddess with Hand Between Legs, 2006. The show includes an extraordinary photograph by Earlie Hudnall, Jr. Hip Hop, 1993, showing a sinewy teen ager, shirtless, wearing a gold necklace.

A third exhibit, a little over one room in size, is called Salon Style, its theme being work where ""hair and fingernails [are} subjects or media in order to explore the complexities of identity and issues such as gender politics and consumerism." Here a dramatic Chakaiah Booker sculpture (1995) reimagines Rapunzel's dramatic tresses using her favored medium of black tire remnants. I was moved by three large scale photgraphs by So Yoon Lym, the young New Jersey artist who turns corn-row hair designs into aerial Mondrians of structure and rhythmic variations . This show too was curated by Hallie Ringle.

There are perils in dealing with a show like Salon Style. An artistic flirtation with cliché and superficiality is inevitable in dealing with the subject. For Pamela Council cliché is a component of the work. Her 2012 Flo Jo World Record Nails, leverages cliché, replicating the manicure of Florence Griffith -Joyner when she won three Olympic gold medal, and summoning up considerations of celebrity, image identity and patriotism in the moment.

The very day I saw Salon Style, the New York Times was publishing its series on the pervasive horrors of nail salons, the dangers they present to personnel and the issues of health and financial exploitation that these businesses present. Salon Style skirts these issues.

All of this is in addition to a main exhibit now on, Skin and Bones: Trenton Doyle Hancock 20 Years of Drawing, a traveling show that originated at the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston. These are effusive, frequently perverse, flamboyant drawings that extend across walls, up to ceilings, again utilizing every inch of available space. There's an homage to Philip Guston and strong influences of graphic novels, comic books and cartoons.

Tucked in the lower level, is a three wall, tightly installed exhibit by this year's Joyce Alexander Wein Prize, Samuel Levi Jones. The site-specific installation, "Unbound," addresses legal authority and the rule of law by presenting the stripped-bare bindings of once noble judicial volumes, books rendered virtually useless by the digital revolution, to say nothing about what might be imputed as to their marginal legitimacy.

The Museum's efforts are reflected in a handsome publication "Studio," a magazine which provides a sense of how the Museum itself sees all these pieces fitting together and supported by its significant residencies, adult and children's programs and prizes.

A visit to the Studio Museum would not be complete without a polite salute to its longtime favorite: Harlem Postcards. Periodically, the Studio Museum commissions contemporary artists to portray aspects of Harlem "as a site of cultural activity, political vitality, visual stimuli, artistic contemplation and creative production." Among the works on offer now is a spectacular work by Awol Erizku, "Hand Holding Grapes. The postcards are available to visitors free, one per customer. This is just another example of exuberant use of limited space and unlimited purpose.

The Studio Museum is creeping up on its 50th Anniversary (2018). Its audience should wildly appreciate its accomplishments. The current exhibitions are a useful place to start.