Black Pulp!

Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery, Wesleyan University • Middletown, CT • • Through December 10, 2017

By: Judy Birke

Both social commentary and a mirror into the soul, Black Pulp! doesn’t always paint a pretty picture. Rather, this ambitious and fascinating synthesis of art, history, identity and activism, curated by William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson, examines the evolving perspectives of Black identity in American culture, through the lens of visual culture. This layered and deep show sweeps the viewer into its enormity.

Black Pulp! is both a reference to the physicality of the printed matter and a critique of prior expressions and positions. “The pulp attitude is to take the tragic and painful points of history, from Jim Crow to World War II, and challenge them through biting humor, satire and wit,” says Villalongo.

The exhibition covers the years 1912 to 2016 and showcases novels, nonfiction, comics and other media-based imagery by some of the most important writers, poets and artists of the 20th century including Langston Hughes and Jacob Lawrence in dialogue with contemporary artworks by such luminaries as Kara Walker, Laylah Ali and Kerry James Marshall. The result is a visually appealing and emotionally charged exhibition that responds to the preconceived notions of the Black experience and culture. By offering alternative visions that challenge earlier stereotypes, Black Pulp! refutes and rewrites that history.

Consider the unsettling humor in comics and political cartoons such as Oliver Harrington’s Dark Laughter Series, which underscores the lunacy of the Jim Crow policy in the United States military during World War ll. Moving dust jacket covers by Aaron Douglas for Wallace Thurman’s novel, The Blacker the Berry (1929), and Miguel Covarrubias’s for Langston Hughes’s poetry collection, The Weary Blues (1926)—both graphically embrace the resonance of each writer’s literary intentions.

Contemporary works such as Walker’s print, Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War [Annotated], in which she disrupts the historical image with a dominant Black female figure, become fierce indictments of visions articulated in earlier imagery.

Black Pulp! is an outstanding merger of past and present. It confirms the unique ability of visual objects to often expose and express more about our culture than can be assessed through hours of scholarly studies.

Image: Renee Cox, Chillin with Liberty, 1998, cibachrome print, 60 x 40 x 2″. Edition: 3. Courtesy of the artist. Image © 2017 Renee Cox.

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