In a subterranean gallery of the Studio lies a little hidden treasure, a curatorial project using the Permanent Collection. Who, What, Wear looks at evolution in style – self-expression, fashion, artistic technique and societal ideals of beauty. The spacious white cube both suggested and denied separated spaces with slight wall protrusions, advocating a single cohesive thought yet interdisciplinary approaches.
The vividly painted Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence) by Kehinde Wiley at the far end of the gallery and Blue Boy by Kalif Kelly hanging adjacent to Samuel Fosso’s self portrait, act as exhibition bookends, setting the stage for the viewer. Play, mythology, and imagination are common threads interloping throughout these works. Fosso’s 1976 portrait is part of his pre-introspective series, in which Fosso plays with portraiture, superficially portraying the character he assumes (later, Fosso uses self-portraiture to explore and objectify emotions through performance). The shallow depth of the portrait, biographical narrative, and wide inclusion of contextual elements suggests departure from the imaginary in contrast to reality.
Blue Boy also evokes play with a nod to early video game culture of the 1980s with Atari-like coloration and Nintendo-esque figuring, dressed in sports apparel with a digital high-top fade. Produced while an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in 2009, Kelly interrogated notions of encoding and semiotics, which resulted in a collection of mythical, pre-pubescent adventures and ideas.
At the other end of the mythical spectrum Wiley’s use of color attracts attention. The three-quarter length Black masculine figure in a business suit, is rendered in a dream-like state, where his hair becomes a bodily extension equally as prominent as his other anatomical appendages. However, unlike the whimsical essence of Fosso and Kelly’s works, this illustration has a more serious tone. His enlivened hair follicles seem to take on a life of its own, underscoring the significance and militant perceptions associated with natural Black hair in corporate America, an issue addressed in the documentary, Good Hair.
It appears that the nature of his hair overpowers the authority in his dress. The illusive quality is perpetuated by the subject’s absence of consciousness or viewer’s hyperconsciousness, as suggested by the painting of the subject’s eyelids. Is the viewer present in the subject’s subconscious or is the subject’s self-consciousness compromising reality?
Breaking up the phantasmic tonality of the exhibit is an unsettling realization of blaxploitation film director, Mr. Melvin Van Peebles. Despite the realness of this work, Isaac Julien’s wax figure completely obliterates the line between reality and fantasy. This work represents the erasure of any demarcations toyed with in the conceptualization of this exhibition.
While other works anchor the theoretical framework of the exhibition, each of the spaces present an unexpected work of exemplary proportions evocative of the dignity and pride found in Black culture. Kerry James Marshall’s “Black is Beautiful” print recalls the Black Power ideology that forged civil rights efforts in the 60s and 70s in America’s ghettos to South Africa’s townships. Lawdy Mama enshrines an anachronistic representation of a poised, young, afro-ed woman foregrounded in a Byzantium-gold arch gesticulating ecclesiastical personification. The high-collared, striped, short-sleeved, dress outlines her curvaceous figure protected by her half-crossed arms.
Equally as religious is the sartorialism of Earlie Hudnall’s Hip-Hop. This 1993 black and white photo depicts a young black male subscribing to Hip-Hop’s ethos of style, from his snapback brim, off-centered towards the back, contrapposto stance, pocketed beeper (pager used for telecommunications prior to the advent of cellular phones) to his gold flat chain (assumptively in gold considering the period, fashion of the time and age of the subject).
An exhibition curated in Harlem, the Black Mecca of cultural and artistic expression; at the Studio Museum, the springboard for artists of African descent, about style and self-representation; would not be replete without homage to the Harlem Renaissance. Chronicler, James Van Der Zee’s turn of the century, On the Town and Love and Marriage gelatin silver prints provide temporal range and history to the presentation.
Who, What, Wear will be exhibited at the Studio Museum until May 26, 2012. Just remember to check the museum website for hours of operation.
 Hoetzl, Ingrid. Self-Portrait/Self-Vision: The Work of Samuel Fosso. “Contemporary African art, Self-Portraiture, Speech Act Theory, Indexicality, and Samuel Fosso” http://uio.academia.edu/IngridHoelzl/Papers/380779/SELF-PORTRAIT_SELF-VISION_THE_WORK_OF_SAMUEL_FOSSO
 Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1213585/