By its very existence, 30 Americans is an exhibition that raises all sorts of questions. Who are these African-American artists and why are they exhibited as a group? It helps to know these works were chosen by Mera and Don Rubell for their collection — itself a who's who sampler of leading contemporary artists — and that they epitomize a specific genre. These works illustrate how modern American artists who happen to be black work within the paradoxes of being who they are, and doing what they do, in America today. Recent black art tends to be more nuanced yet no less visceral than it was in the past, so it's no surprise that irony is a constant, or that sentiments can seem over the top. The challenge is to handle the outrageous elements, and these artist know how to do it deftly.
The late Robert Colescott is the acknowledged granddaddy of the group. His parents moved from New Orleans to California before he was born, but his roots resurface in Sunset on the Bayou (pictured), where black folk ponder hard questions of identity against a cartoonish backdrop of the Louisiana Purchase. No less outrageous are Kalup Linzy's mock soap opera videos in which he plays gender-bending roles, or Mickalene Thomas' satirical paintings depicting kitschy interpretations of black female sexuality, or Kara Walker's mock-Victorian paper cutout depictions of the elegant depravity of antebellum plantation life. More recent trends appear in Kehinde Wiley's lushly painted transpositions of black pop culture figures into baroque settings formerly associated with European aristocracy. The cumulative effect is like a raucous hall of mirrors where stereotypes are often wildly exaggerated and no one escapes the darkly expressionistic humor so often implicit in these works. Overall, 30 Americans is a great show that graphically illustrates the cognitive dissonance that ensues when sensitive artists try to make sense of a world where superficial labels often trump complex individual realities.