Review – Modes, Methods and Mediums of Dandy

Dandy, as commonly understood, seems to have more to do with possessing a flair for extraordinary style than referencing globalization or colonial sway. But, an exhibition of costume and demeanor in particular communities can aid in thoughts about the political implications of dress.  With such swagger on display however the elusive nature of dandy complicates critical reflection. That said, depictions of the black male dandy are currently on display at two venues in Chicago, although one doesn’t purport to know it.

Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity, curated by Shantrelle P. Lewis, at Columbia’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, showcases the work of photographers and filmmakers from the US, Europe and Africa. It’s an impressive collection of mostly C-Prints presenting males as “high style rebels” in varied timeless locations like the office, jungle, community, or nameless street spectacle. The use of color in the photos is either pleasing like the work of Hanif Abdur-Rahim and Harness Hamese/Loux the Vintage Guru, or punctuated as in Rose Callahan and Kia Chenelle’s work. Shifts like this, between style and intent, in portraiture, are present in interesting ways throughout the show but yet somewhat speak more to the historical narrative of photography than the politics found in depictions of the dandy. Therein lies somewhat of the problem with the collection although not necessarily the works, even if the majority of images seem as if pulled from a fashion or commercial photo shoot.

The camera as constitutive instrument is made more critical in a visual culture by its immediacy. It readily produces more instances to reconsider what’s being depicted only it has to contend with saturation. In many ways this is nod to colonization and the power of images. But, one could say that what’s on display is a certain art school aesthetic that favors the C-print for its archival, and so economic, implications which overshadow the contents of the image. In mentioning these concerns to a dear friend, and photographer, I’m reminded that even if this is the case there remains some measure of responsibility in the viewer to look beyond the surface of art, especially digital photography.

Just north up Michigan Avenue is an exhibition of works by the late painter Archibald Motley at the Chicago Cultural Center. Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, showcases in bulk what the artist is known for, portraits of mulatto women and scenes of cultural concentration, fusion, and difference. The attention to color is just as obvious here though noticeably more so in later works such as Barbecue (1960) or Hot Rhythm (1961). Lesser noted pieces completed in the 40s like Getting’ Religion (1948) and The Argument (1940) on the other hand portray dandyism rather as an everyday phenomena.

Painting and photography have always seemed opposed, at least when it comes to re-presenting reality, but with time the two have become almost inseparable. With portraiture, the same expectations are equally distributed among the two when it comes to accurately capturing and presenting a moment. Both exhibitions demonstrate the subtle differences of portraiture by gesturing towards the visual, the sentimental or environmental qualities of the subject matter.  Yet, the only relationship that appears to be always bought into question is the intent of the artist or subject. Possibly, it’s the artist as subject, maybe even, the viewer as subject, or the subject as art, that’s in question? These questions compromise or further what’s essentially a testament made by those directly involved. But, say, if it were the latter, then what’s possibly at stake in the tension within and between the two is a matter of time or knowledge. Is it time, as in, to digest, or knowledge, pre-existing or motivated to acquire, that’s needed? Also, and possibly more importantly, does the immediacy, polish, and saturation of contemporary photographic practices place different demands on the people involved than painting does…is the relation to the subject matter and time spent in production affected?

To identify cultural and fashion myths present in ideas of the dandy, beyond a gendered overtone and matter-of-fact demeanor, is in fact made more enchanting by establishing a connection between Baudelaire’s dandy and Benjamin’s flâneur with the Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni’s pink-suited “Willy Covary, Brazzaville,” 2008, or Hanif Abdur-Rahim’s, A Revolutionary in Etiquette: Connosieurs of SWAG, 2010; and these, to zoot suits or the tailored look worn by people of color in different locations and time periods, the diaspora, as a statement of refusal but yet appropriation and validation. It’s a loaded endeavor and doesn’t even begin to consider the shift created in painting decades before by Impressionism’s nontraditional use of color, edges, and light. All of which are prominent players in photographic hierarchy, that are noticeable in Motley’s work.

Does the viewer, or artist, under the circumstance need to be able to make these connections? No, they don’t, and, some may like to. Both exhibitions prove that issues of time and saturation are very much a part of art viewing and art making.

Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity, is on view through July 12 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 South Michigan Avenue.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, is on view through August 31, at the Chicago Cultural Center, 4th Floor North, 78 E. Washington St.

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