Black and Blue: Race and humor at the Hyde Park Arts Center

“Disinhibition: Black Art and Blue Humor,” a new exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, is, as the title promises, without “inhibition” in its attempts to force the viewers to interact with difficult issues–specifically race and racial taboos–through various artistic media. Video, drawing, and photography enable participating artists to express their points of view in what can only be considered a rather blunt fashion.

The exhibition is confined to two rooms. One of the rooms serves as a gallery space where the most prominent artistic pieces are Jayson Musson’s enlarged posters, one of which features a picture of Jesus and Osama bin Laden and reads, “Beware of persuasive men with beards.” Another one of Musson’s posters, “KatrinaLand,” designed as an advertisement for an imagined luxury water park for those who “are young and for adults who are still young at heart,” satirically addresses the commercialization of the areas affected by the hurricane. Musson’s pieces have a sardonic tone to them, without being gratuitously humorous; humor is used as a way for spectators to re-evaluate their personal prejudices. Musson represents this catastrophe as a social tragedy, where millions of New Orleans residents–many of them black–were displaced and rendered homeless. “Find the White Neighborhood,” another Musson poster, not only incorporates racial issues in contemporary discourse, it also expands on the use of racial stereotypes. Its objective is to transplant a white contestant into a black neighborhood at night, and give him $3.00 for transportation. The contestant, who has no idea where he is, either “end[s] up in [a] much more dangerous neighborhood or on the brighter side of things (literally).” As Musson explains further: “The contestant could end up in the white neighborhood.”

David Leggett, another artist, provokes viewers with a simple composition: a page splattered with black paint, representing a racially and socially intense message with the aid of some decisive words: “On July 18th, 1989, my Mama slapped the black off of me… That’s why I only fuck white girls.” Indeed, Blake Bradford, the exhibition’s curator, characterizes the assemblage of art as a “present-tense exploration.” This characterization is quite apt, especially in regard to Dave McKenzie’s work “We Shall Overcome,” a video installation of a black man walking around the streets of Harlem, where Bill Clinton’s law office is located, in a Clinton mask. “We Shall Overcome” is a tongue-in-cheek response to Toni Morrison’s famous statement that Bill Clinton was “America’s first black president.”

Bradford describes our society as being “complicit,” one that “participate[s] in both progress and regress” in terms of racial stereotypes and racism. In this regard, “Disinhibition: Black Art and Blue Humor” is very effective. Whether you agree with what is being shown, or better yet, whether you find it to be offensive because it encourages “straight talk,” the exhibition nevertheless serves as a forum–a place where viewers are forced to confront admitted or secret bigotry. And it is for this reason that the sign at the exhibition’s entrance, which reads: “Please be advised: The artworks in the exhibition address adult themes and content and contain language and images that some might find offensive,” is an attempt to remove viewers from their comfort zones. As Bradford explains: “Sometimes people have to be reminded that their hot coffee is hot.”

Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through June 22. Monday-Thursday, 9am-8pm, Friday-Saturday, 9am-5pm, Sunday, 12pm-5pm. www.hydeparkart.org