Review of reviews: Art & Music
Exhibit of the week
An Incomplete History of Protest: 1940–2017
The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
If the relevance of protest art was ever in question, it isn’t now, said The New Yorker. Artists often create work intended to challenge established thinking, and the Whitney’s edifying new survey of political art from the past eight decades demonstrates there are countless ways to shake up a viewer. When artist Felix Partz died of AIDS in 1994, his friend and artistic collaborator AA Bronson created a billboardsize photographic portrait of Partz’s skeleton-like body wrapped in multicolored quilts several hours after his death. When Senga Nengudi wanted to protest violence against women in 1977, she created an abstract figure by stretching a web of brown pantyhose in a way that evokes flayed skin. In the context of the show, “abstraction looks surprisingly powerful.” Melvin Edwards’ Pyramid Up and Down Pyramid strings barbed wire across a room to divide it into new volumes. Such works could be the new monuments our public spaces need.
Much of the art, though, falls into one of two traps, said Jonathon Keats in Forbes.com. Protest posters are “particularly problematic,” because “their impact as agitprop requires immediacy that is antithetical to artistic insight.” Often they look great, but tell us nothing that only art can. “At the other extreme” sit politically engaged artists “who attempt to channel their convictions through the abstruse language of contemporary art.” Theaster Gates’ Minority Majority (2012) is a wall-mounted sculpture constructed of plywood, vinyl, and fire hoses. It’s visually engaging, for sure, but you wouldn’t know without the wall text that you’re meant to think of the fire hoses used against 1960s civil rights protesters. Occasionally, though, the right balance is struck. In 2005, Josephine Meckseper used a Super 8 camera to film a Washington, D.C., protest against the second Iraq War. The graininess of the silent footage causes the march to resemble a Vietnam-era antiwar protest, thus throwing into question whether protests ever succeed.
That’s the nagging question “that hangs over this whole enterprise,” said Ben Diamond in Avenue Magazine. Earnest artistic statements aside, the show mostly suggests that protest art rarely achieves the lasting change it seeks. But then you happen upon Ja’Tovia Gary’s short film An Ecstatic Experience, and hope is renewed. First, you hear the music of Alice Coltrane while seeing footage of worshippers at a 1950s African-American church. You next watch Ruby Dee recite a potent slave testimonial, then hear Dee and others sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” over images of recent Black Lives Matter protests. In this film, as in all the best work in the show, no single force is being resisted by the artist’s apparent optimism. The revolutionary spirit that fills you “applies to any injustice.”
Thomas Rhett is “the kind of guy who could give country pop a good name,” said Chris Willman in Variety. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter has just achieved country’s No. 1 album on 2017’s Billboard pop chart, and he’s done it with an amiable manner, consistent pop craft, and a “breezy” way of hopping from heartland rock to bubblegum to light electronic dance music; “actual country music is just one more arrow in his quiver.” Life Changes delivers just what the title promises, said Stephen Thomas Erlewine in AllMusic.com. Rhett and his childhood sweetheart recently adopted a Ugandan infant and added a second child to their household, and because Rhett is “a smooth talker with a penchant for oversharing,” we get the whole love story here. The lyrics are “littered with references to the modern world” (think Coldplay songs and mango green tea), and the music, “more impressively,” engages honestly with multiple musical trends. Many songs are “nothing more than slick radio pop,” but every one of them is “expertly assembled.”
If you haven’t listened to any new Tori Amos music lately, “now is a perfect time to come home,” said Katie Rife in AVClub.com. In this age of strife, the singer-songwriter’s 15th album is “a deeply felt call for unity” that weaves different threads of her songwriting style into a harmonious whole. Musically, Native Invader balances Amos’ recent flirtations with guitar rock and electronica with “more orchestral” aspects of her sound, all held together by her piano and classically trained mezzo-soprano voice. Her lyrics here confront traumas both personal and global, then urge healing. The album’s mix of themes ensures musical variety, said Libby Cudmore in PasteMagazine.com. With its “southwestern twang” and “Beatles-esque” guitars, “Cloud Riders” is classic Amos. The furious “Up the Creek,” which pays homage to her Native American roots and addresses climate ignorance, uses sharp string fills to chart out “wilder territory.” Though Amos has made more playful albums, this one is “unwavering in its commitment to being muse-driven and unafraid.”
“Listeners who want to hear a smart and passionate musician take R&B into new, thoughtful places owe it to themselves to give New Magic a careful listen,” said Mark Deming in AllMusic.com. Philadelphia singersongwriter Son Little still draws on hip-hop grooves and hip-hop production when he wishes to, but his second album is significantly more organic than his first, sounding like the work of a tight blues-seasoned band led by a passionate soul singer. The bright single “Blue Magic” feels slightly out of place here, even though it “bodes well” for Little’s potential as a hitmaker, said Karas Lamb in ConsequenceOfSound.com. The rest traces a more somber personal redemption narrative, as Little sings about booze and pills and finding refuge in faith, love, and the kind of music he plays here. New Magic finds him “prostrate at the altar of obscure musical titans who ruled small rooms and stages with burdened hearts and rough-hewn instruments.” Though a couple of forgettable tracks weaken the record, it’s otherwise “abundant with magic.” ■