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Where South meets Harlem

4/24/2014, 4:03 p.m.

Studio Museum chief Thelma Golden states firmly that the “South’s living history” is alive and well in Harlem, and her point is vividly seconded by the array of art on display at her place under the rubric of “When the Stars Begin to Fall—Imagination and the American South,” curated by Thomas J. Lax.

One step into the gallery and beyond an increasingly large crowd of onlookers gathered for the opening last Wednesday was Rodney McMillian’s installation, where a video yanks the viewer from the Harlem streets back to the woods of Virginia where Nat Turner, the insurrectionist, carried out his uprising. But the uprising is only alluded to in McMillian’s “A Song for Nat Turner,” as a man geared in what appears to be a spacesuit-cum-hazmat outfit emerges from the surrounding forest and circles a baronial estate with mayhem on his mind.

The South-Harlem nexus is given another spin with McArthur Binion’s “Circuit Landscapes No. 11.” Binion was born in Mississippi and raised in Detroit and now resides in Chicago. This painting, he says, “was done when I was a student in 1972.” And even in those formative years, his mastery of space was apparent, and he expands the environmental niche McMillian contains in the video box.

Alabama-born Noah Purifoy has shaped his modernist sculptures from an incongruous array of found objects, and his steel, wood, glass and whatever objects have grown almost organically in disparate locations across the country. The rusted mechanical parts that form “Bessemer Steel” are indicative of his commanding style.

In a process similar to Binion’s usage of oil stick and Dixon crayons, Frank Albert Jones made his drawings with red- and blue-colored pencils from a Southern penitentiary where he was incarcerated. At the center of his intricate assembly of geometric figures of his untitled piece are eyes and faces that seem to cry out for liberation from the tapestry’s entanglement.

Confinement is also at play in David Hammon’s work—several bottles filled with various items, none more puzzling than one with small wooden crosses inside. Like ships inside of bottles, you wonder how they got there, which is not the best way to size up this man’s art, which always finds a way to make a broader political statement while poking fun at the establishment and the traditional boundaries of art.

Slavery leaps from the canvas in Kerry James Marshall’s “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein.” They are among the largest, most compelling paintings in the exhibit, and the Black male and female images almost blend into the dark background. Marshal evokes a trope or metaphor on the invisibility of the slaves, their intimidating sexuality and the controlled, pent-up rage that might at any moment bust loose like Turner’s.

A favorite of many viewers is Deborah Grant’s “The Birth of Genius in the Midnight Sun,” in which her 24 boxes replicate a number of artistic styles from Bearden to William Henry Johnson to Basquiat. Is that a nod to Kara Walker in one box and one to Norman Rockwell in another? Black history and biography are rendered here in an almost childlike wonder, and how wonderful it is to see a depiction of Alain Locke, considered one of the progenitors of the Harlem Renaissance.

From the bottom floor where the huge photos of Carrie Mae Weems dominate to the main floor of Ralph Lemon’s costumed narratives (pictured here) to the top of the gallery where Lonnie Holley’s “Blown Out Black Mama’s Belly” invites commentary, the exhibit, which stands until June 29, is a wondrous concoction of Harlem and Southern motifs, and this collaboration is given additional impetus and insight in the catalogue, particularly through the essays by Lax and Lowery Stokes Sims.