"Essential Contact" and "In the Ring," two exhibitions in the CEPA Gallery, both present the work of black artists from Great Britain. Most of the artists involved are of non-European origin; therefore, these shows offer a look at the artistic contribution of individuals who rarely exhibit on this side of the Atlantic.
Ingrid Pollard, curator of "Essential Contact," has chosen a group of nine photographers, all are connected with the London association of black photographers called Autograph. A few of the photographers deal expressly with specific issues of identity -- both cultural and sexual -- and racial stereotyping; others are more interested in formal problems or a loose form of documentary photography.
Other than the happenstance of the artists belonging to the same artists' association, there seems to be no particular reason to show these photographers as a group. In many cases, the fact that the artists are black has no crucial bearing on what we see here.
Rhona Harriette, for instance, was born in England in 1964 and, judging by her highly conventional images of singers and instrumentalists, seems smitten in the ordinary way with British popular music.
Or Gilbert Johns, who was born in the West Indies, executes photographs that are standard arty night shots of urban life. Peter Vinaik, applying the tenets of photographic tradition, discovers interesting patterns in architecture and landscape.
Robert Taylor does broach a vital subject -- homosexual love -- but he trivializes the subject by presenting sentimental shots of black and white male lovers caught in Robert Mapplethorpe-like poses. The best that can be said for his work is that it demonstrates how powerful Mapplethorpe is.
Roshini Kempdapoo, in photo-text works, makes compelling points about the problems of dual cultural roots. But the form -- alternating strips of text and photos -- is dry as the driest conceptualism.
Mumtaz Karimjee's photographs of a harem woman are visually exciting images. But the casually typed captions have such a critical part in the meaning of the work that I found myself wondering why they weren't given some formal prominence. This seems to be a case where text and image, given equal footing, could have a powerful social commentary on the skewed European view of non-western women.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode -- who, sadly, died as the show was being mounted -- effectively adapts stylized body postures based on African religious icons to images of male homosexuals. The gum dichromate medium lends the photographs a subtle hesitancy that adds a note of mystery to the stark poses of the nudes.
The artists of "In the Ring," chosen by British photographer Jenny McKenzie, make a worse case for its curator. All are women, and three of the four represented are painters, Pollard being the lone photographer. But the aesthetic aims go every which way.
The painters are uniformly feeble, and as a group, make a very poor showing. Pollard shows some dreary close-ups of a body assuming something akin to "modern dance" poses. Occasionally we are treated to even tighter shots of folds of skin that naturally take place when the body is bent in such positions. The viewer is at a loss to decide whether the photographer is keying to abstract patterns or making a social statement through body gesture.
The exhibitions suggest this question: What is the value of curating an exhibition based on ethnic background or race that has no political or aesthetical center? I would say the value is negligible. Why not at least try to select artists who take some critical slant on their subject matter?
"Essential Contact" and "In the Ring."
Two shows of photographs and paintings by black artists from Great Britain.
CEPA Gallery, 700 Main St., through Feb. 10