The Rubell Museum is shaking things up again

The Rubell DC Museum opened in 2022 with its inaugural exhibition featuring the work of 50 artists: “What’s Going On?” Two new shows largely replaced those, filling the 100,000-square-foot space. The first thing visitors will encounter is “Jooba Jubba, l’Art du Defi, The Art of Defiance,” a set of large collage-paintings by French Senegalese artist Alexandre Diop. It is separate from the museum’s other exhibition, Special Views: 25 Artists. Yet Diop’s art is very much in sync with the work in the second show.

Diop’s style is raw and loose, and his works incorporate found objects—all qualities often found in works displayed elsewhere in the building. Based in Vienna, Diop makes work that speaks to the black experience, as do many of the participants in the parallel show. And Diop is a former artist-in-residence at Rubell’s Miami facility, like three others whose work is on display at the DC branch.

Selected from the extensive artwork collection created by Mera and Don Rubell and their son Jason Rubell, both exhibitions unearth cultural history while addressing contemporary issues. Diop parodies such well-known European paintings as Manet’s Olympia, which depicts a reclining nude white woman with a black maid behind her, while repeatedly inserting book covers by his partial namesake, the Senegalese historian and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop. Trash found in the neighborhood of the Rubell Museum in Miami includes some of the works that were made there. The effect is both exuberant and destabilizing, as Diop proclaims his prerogative to remake European art from an Afrocentric perspective.

Several of the artists offer defiantly large and ornate portraits of black people. Artist Mikalyn Thomas’s women, some partially nude, are decorated with multi-colored crystals. There’s even more bare flesh in Ethiopian-born Tesfaye Urgesa’s vast paintings of entwined bodies, whose fleshy quality calls to mind the British artist Francis Bacon.

Amoako Boafo and Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, both Ghana-born and former Rubell residents, depict black people in bold clothing against backgrounds that are flat and brightly colored or densely impostored and white, respectively. Boafo, a Pop Expressionist, gives his subjects oily skin; pop realist Quaicoe portrays a complexion that is glossy and literally black.

Two local black female artists depict their peers in very different ways. Rozeal (formerly known as Iona Rozeal Brown) draws her inspiration and her poses from Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period. February James lends a sinister mood to portraits of ordinary people, depicting them with grim expressions and menacing teeth.

Many of the featured artists are indebted to comics and cartoons. Superman and a baseball player are among the American icons that appear in the often text-heavy sketches of Raymond Pettibon, who is probably best known for the artwork he did for Black Flag, his brother’s Los Angeles punk band. Although they are drawn rather than painted, there is something cartoonish about Clayton Schiff’s pictures of sad characters, which he calls in his statement “usually a stand-in for me.”

Also caricatured are the people in Jesse Mockrin’s oil-on-linen paintings, although they are depicted in a painstaking neoclassical style that is anything but typical of the Rubells’ usual farmsteads. Mockrin’s photographs are perhaps the most delicate work in the show, although there is a kindred delicacy in William Kentridge’s hand-drawn animated video, in which water images move and flow.

Romance-comic-style panels once ripped off by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein appear in Alison Zuckerman’s partially digital collages. But Zuckerman, another former Rubel resident, also occasionally includes images of women drawn from pornography. This gives her work an affinity with that of Cajsa von Zeipel, a holdover from the museum’s inaugural installation, whose work featured near-naked mannequins spinning on a bed of photo and video equipment as if both making and becoming a porn video.

There are no depictions of people in John Miller’s found object painting, Refusal to Accept Boundaries, another work that has been on display since the museum opened. Greco-Roman columns, an arch and an obelisk are the defining elements of the large installation, in which everything is painted in gold. Among the smaller items are plastic bottles and toy guns and tools such as saws and scythes. What at first appears to be a simulated ancient ruin turns out to be an assemblage of recently manufactured stuff, a pile of gilded junk. Even at its most ostensibly classic, “Singular Views” is aggressively contemporary.

Single views: 25 artists

Alexandre Diop: The Art of Challenge

Rubell Museum, 65 I St. SW. 202-964-8254. rubellmuseum.org/dc.

Dates: Until October 2024

Prices: $15; $12 for seniors; $10 for students and children; free for DC residents, military personnel, EBT card holders and visitors with disabilities. Admission Wednesday through Friday is by pay-what-you-wish donation.

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