Sondheim Finalists 2016: Larry Cook pokes holes in the idea of 'post-racial' America

There is a distinct shift when moving through the Sondheim show into the central gallery that is currently home to Larry Cook's work. The change in mood can be largely attributed to the change in lighting: The gallery is very dim, emphasizing the intense brightness of some pieces while shrouding others until they are nearly imperceptible.

Immediately grabbing your attention is a piercing white neon sign bearing the words "Some of My Best Friends are Black." White people use this ignorant phrase to "prove" that they are not racist so often that it has essentially become a meme. Here, against the dark background, the words are glaring and physically uncomfortable to look at for an extended period of time.

On the adjacent wall, a small mirror reflects the light of the neon sign. Standing in front of the mirror and faced with their own reflection, the viewer is invited to wear a headset, which plays audio from "Roots," specifically the scene in which Kunta Kinte is whipped for not accepting the name Toby. This piece, entitled "The Making of an Identity," is not the only work of Cook's on display that features content from "Roots." The second is "Stockholm Syndrome," a projected video that places footage from "12 Years a Slave" and "Roots" next to footage from President Barack Obama's inauguration. Both videos pan across the faces of their subjects—groups of slaves on plantations and crowds of free Americans in front of the Capitol. Sitting in front of the piece, where the slave master or the president is assumed to be, forces the viewers to assume a position of power.

The "Whitewashed" series rounds out the selection of works by Cook that are on display at the BMA. Found text and images are placed behind tinted or mirrored Plexiglas, either obscuring the materials or brightening them, as if in a wall-mounted light box à la Jeff Wall. Behind the tinted Plexiglas of "Whitewashed #4" lies a reproduction of "Transfiguration of Jesus," an early 15th century painting by Theophanes the Greek depicting biblical figures—including the haloed Christ—with dark skin. Next to this work is "Whitewashed #5," a crisp, brightly lit portrait of a white Jesus with blue eyes. On the opposite wall hangs "Whitewashed #3," tinted Plexiglas over text describing the worship of Africans by early Greeks and Romans. In Cook's "Whitewashed" series, the historical works that erase blackness are prominent and easy to discern, while those that uplift blackness are hidden. To make out these works, the viewers must stand inches from them. The tinted Plexiglas has a reflective quality, casting their image back and calling on the viewers to place themselves within the work. 

Cook's work is explicit rather than implicit. His message is clear and the sources he pulls from are largely familiar and frequently cited. Museum-goers immediately understand how the materials function together to make a statement or provoke consideration and reevaluation.

This approach is direct and immediate, poking holes in the idea of a "post-racial" America, where people claim not to "see color." Cook appropriates content, confidently re-presenting words, images, and sounds that already exist around us. All the while Cook's work confronts the viewers—with glaring brightness, with their own reflections, with their real or assumed position of power. In turn he forces the viewers to place themselves somewhere within the longstanding narrative of racism and erasure that endures today.

The Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist show is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through July 31. City Paper will be posting reviews of all of the finalists leading up to the award announcement on July 9. For more information on the Sondheim awards, click here.

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