The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis hopes its upcoming exhibit will help regain some of the public trust lost after the Kelley Walker exhibit spawned controversy this fall.
The new exhibit will feature four artists: photographer Deanna Lawson, visual artist Louis Cameron, figurative painter Nicola Tyson and muralist Katherine Bernhardt.
Although CAM planned the latest exhibits before the Walker exhibit opened, administrators want the show, which opens in January, to address some of the concerns people in St. Louis had about Walker's displays.
Visitors and area artists expressed outrage that CAM gave wall space to a white artist who they criticized for defacing images of black people — from civil-rights era photographs to an enlarged image of the rapper Trina on the cover of the culture magazine King.
Eddie Silva, a communication specialist for the museum, said the Walker exhibit was punctuated by moments that didn’t stand with the museum’s institutional identity — particularly the artist's talk, where former curator Jeffery Uslip and Walker refused to answer questions aimed at the artist’s representation of black bodies.
“That was a moment when CAM was not CAM,” Silva said. “[Executive Director] Lisa Melandri’s open letter to the community after that moment was purely about that: this is not who we are, this does not represent who we are, this place has always been open.”
Lawson photographs African-Americans and people of the African Diaspora. She’s included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a major U.S. art exhibit. Cameron will display the first showing of his manipulated photographs of clouds and posters from a collaborative project representing various black male identities. Tyson will display figurative drawings and paintings in her first ever show in the United States. Bernhardt, a St. Louis native, will create a mural on the museum’s project wall.
None of the artists are presenting work immediately in response to Walker’s work. But some of the work deals with representations of race in a fine art context.
Cameron, who has shown work at the St. Louis Art Museum, said he isn’t concerned with how his work will be presented, even after the controversy. Along with his clouds series, he’ll display posters that present various artists meditations on being black and male in America. He welcomes any conversation about this own work and the work itself is very different.
“With Walker’s work he’s dealing with different issues and there’s something else going on within his work that differs from what I’m doing in my work,” Cameron said.” You know, even if people have a lot of questions, I welcome it, I enjoy the conversation, I think that’s what the work’s about.”
Silva said the new show offers a different perspective than the Walker exhibit. He cites the work of Lawson, a black woman who creates portraits of people with their cooperation, in environments they select and in which they feel comfortable.
“Her work is very much based on the black figure, and on black portraiture, and on black people and African-American people and people of the African Diaspora," Silva said. "And yes, they’re very provocative and they’re very intimate.”
Cameron saw the Walker controversy as the result of various factors of circumstance and context that haven’t come together before.
“I don’t think he’s ever been pressed so hard on his use of black people and the black body in his work," he siad. "And, you know, I think it’s a good thing that he was held accountable for how he was representing black people in his work.”
The show opens Jan. 27.