There is an interesting interplay that happens when you look at these various works. It becomes very clear that the exchange of cultural idioms represented in Blues for Smoke is a two-way transaction, and that many of the artists featured are quick to implicate black people as complicit in their own exploitation. This point is adroitly made by Renee Greene, whose audio installation features a range of African-American texts and cultural references, including a series of definitions of slang terms, presented like words in a dictionary. Does this formalize an alternate language? It begs the question of whether representing slang in this institutional format lends it legitimacy — or only serves to commercialize its usage. William Pope accents a similar tension with his provocative text drawings of phrases such as, “Black people are the last white colonists,” also featured in Blues for Smoke.
Tied to both the queer affinity of the exhibit, and shedding light on the complicit role black people play in the commodification of our culture, rap artist Le1f’s dynamic song and video “Wut” feels surprisingly at home, depicting the black rapper seductively posed on the lap of a half-naked white man whose face is covered by a Pokemon mask. This video installation points, again, to the question of, “Who in this scenario is actually being fetishized whom?”
While Blues for Smoke is definitely on the pulse of the hottest ideas in culture and society, one of the drawbacks of the show is its sheer abundance. There are perhaps too many impressions to absorb, making it feel distended, reaching beyond the exhibit’s capacity to express its big ideas. When dealing with themes of such great intensity and nuance, having enough time and space becomes important to processing it all. Blues for Smoke leans toward the over-saturated. The way the exhibit is organized also feels somewhat disjointed at times, lacking the flow that might lend what seems like disparate parts of black cultural history a sense of continuity.
The Whitney draws the title for the exhibit from a 1960 solo album by jazz pianist Jaki Byard. The museum insists in its curatorial summary of the show that the title is meant to suggest that the influence of the blues is pervasive, but also diffuse and difficult to pin down. Based on the tensions that surface in the show, one can’t help but wonder if there is an alternate interpretation at work. Perhaps Blues for Smoke describes yet another transaction – blues literally for smoke; an exchange of rich cultural idioms that find their roots in the blues and black art, offered (or taken) for cultural currency as impermanent and malleable as a cloud of smoke.
Certainly not to be missed, you can catch this thought provoking exhibit until April 28 in New York City. What you take away might be as overwhelming, and diffuse, as the “smoke” in its title.
Chase Quinn is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist, who has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and the U.K., promoting social and economic justice. Follow Chase on Twitter at @chasebquinn.