LAXART is pleased to present a public program revisiting The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism, the influential exhibition curated by the artist Charles Gaines—this program at LAXART features a reading by poet and scholar Fred Moten followed by a dialogue between Gaines and Moten. Theater of Refusal debuted at the University of California Irvine Fine Arts Gallery in April of 1993, and traveled to the UC Davis and UC Riverside art galleries, concluding in February of 1994. The exhibition included work by artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Renée Green, David Hammons, Ben Patterson, Adrian Piper, Sandra Rowe, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Pat Ward Williams, and Fred Wilson. In addition to the artists’ work presented in the gallery, Gaines assembled didactic wall displays and a reading room that featured published art criticism on each of the eleven exhibiting artists. By tracing the critical reception of each artist within the exhibition, Gaines encouraged reflection on the process of reception itself, while also emphasizing the exhibition context as an active site for the formation and interpretation of meaning and subjectivity. The exhibition’s full title suggests that the analytic work of considering (and reconsidering) an artist’s reception must also recognize how criticism is performed and embodied, as well as specifically recognize to what extent criticism has elided, foreclosed, or refused to engage in such a process of consideration and self-inquiry when reflecting on work by black artists.
1993 was of course a critical marker year for efforts, within the US and globally, to reflect on the field of cultural production as constituted by its social relations, economic conditions, and ideological systems. Gaines’ tracking of the critical reception surrounding the eleven artists exhibited in Theater of Refusal was not an effort to recognize an outright elision by critics of African-American artists and their work, but rather an effort to discuss the severe deficits of art criticism and other legitimizing art institutions in contending with a burgeoning, albeit limited, exposure for marginalized artists in the early 1990s. In its early planning stages, and as it traveled through California university art galleries, Theater of Refusal’s curatorial premise predicted the uncritical habits and deeply unresolved historical problems that drove discourses on identity politics and critical reception surrounding other early 90s case study exhibitions, including Culture in Action and the 1993 Whitney Biennial.
Theater of Refusal, and the exhibition catalogue for which Gaines contributed an essay, continues to be an influential yet underhistoricized and undertheorized project for many artists and curators working today. In an effort to illuminate this exhibition history and recognize its complex curatorial framework, LAXART has commissioned a new text by Fred Moten reflecting on Theater of Refusal. For the program at LAXART, Moten’s reading of his text will be followed by a dialogue with Gaines, further reflecting on this significant exhibition and its relation to Gaines’ practice. Moten’s essay will also be featured in a forthcoming publication revisiting the exhibition history of Theater of Refusal to accompany this program at LAXART.
This program wishes to acknowledge Catherine Lord, who as Director of the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of California Irvine from 1991–96 worked closely on Theater of Refusal, and who with Charles Gaines, co-authored the exhibition catalogue. Special thanks to Rhea Anastas for providing crucial guidance and editorial assistance.
Charles Gaines is an artist and educator based in Los Angeles. Over the course of his 40 year career, Gaines’ photographic works, drawings, performances, and works on paper have consistently mobilized critical theory and different critical methodologies to investigate subjectivity, ideology, and visual representation. His most recent survey exhibition, Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974 – 1989, debuted at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2014 and traveled to the Hammer Museum in 2015. In 2013, he received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and presented a solo exhibition, Notes on Social Justice, at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. In 2012, Gaines was the subject of a mid-career survey at the Pomona College Museum of Art and the Pitzer College Art Gallery in Claremont, California. Gaines’ work has been featured in major group exhibitions including Blues for Smoke (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2012) and Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2011). He participated in the 2014 Montreal Biennial and the 2007 and 2015 Venice Biennale, as well as group exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Lentos Museum; Deichtorhallen; Kunsthalle Basel; Contemporary Art Museum, Houston; and REDCAT Gallery. Gaines’ published essays include Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism (University of California, Irvine, 1993) and The New Cosmopolitanism (California State University, Fullerton, 2008). He is represented by Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Gaines has been full-time faculty in the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts since 1989.
Fred Moten is a poet and scholar whose work explores Black Studies, Performance Studies, and critical theory. He is the author of Arkansas (2000), In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003), Hughson's Tavern (2008), B Jenkins (2010), The Feel Trio, The Little Edges (both 2014), and, with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013). The Feel Trio was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry. He is a Professor at the University of California, Riverside.
LAXART's programs are produced with generous support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; The J. Paul Getty Foundation; The National Endowment for the Arts; The Pasadena Art Alliance; and The Stratton-Petit Foundation.
Above image: David Hammons, African American Flag, 1989. Installation Photograph: Catherine Opie.
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