I’m ashamed to say, The International Print Center New York, or IPCNY always gets tangled up in my brain with ICP– as in, yes, the Insane Clown Posse. But one thing you’re definitely not gonna find at IPCNY right now are white people dressed up like murderous clown folk who have yet to grasp some of the most basic, life-on-Earth concepts such as “stuff falls when you let go of it” and “some metal things stick together.” Instead, you’ll find a historically-minded, mind-mining show dedicated to a critical exploration of black identity in America from 1912 to the present by way of pulp.
Black Pulp! boasts printed gems from the past and present, including contemporary contributions from some of the most highly respected artists of the black diaspora working today. Wangechi Mutu, Derrick Adams, Kara Walker, and William Pope L. are just a few names on the roster. Mediums include fine-art etchings, multiples/stackables designed for mass-distribution, newspapers, comics and weightier items like history books.
So… what’s up with this starting year, 1912? Well, Jim Crow was in effect and the Great Migration was in full swing. The following year Woodrow Wilson would officially sanction segregation in the federal government, the NAACP had just been founded, and Marcus Garvey was calling for unity amongst the African Diaspora across the world and promoting the “Back to Africa” movement. Meanwhile outside of Johannesburg, a township called Alexandra was founded and went from being one of the only places where black South Africans could own land (through the 1930s) to a locus for some of the most violent and extreme expressions of apartheid and, eventually, one of the poorest, most disenfranchised communities in the whole country.
Between the exhibition’s bookend years, 1912 and 2016, the various ways in which black Americans were seen and saw themselves underwent some incredible transformations. At the same rate, many of these ideas, archetypes, images, and even sayings, remain deeply embedded within our culture. “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the fruit,” anyone?
If the backdrop sounds somewhat sobering, well, yeah it definitely is. But Black Pulp approaches its subject matter from a totally different angle than the usual historical this-and-that, and instead focuses on what’s been so often dismissed as the “low arts”– comic books and literature with mass appeal. So the show ends up expressing a much more nuanced vision of black identity in the last century– through fun and darkness, desperation and tenacity, humor and oppression.
Since “pulp” usually brings to mind paperback adventure novels with muscled men cradling a bloodied wild beast in one arm and a busty, scantily-clad babe in the other (the same formula can be applied to “sci-fi” or “mystery,” just swapping out the outfits for alien costumes and trench coats, respectively), it’s easy to assume that the genre as a whole would actually perpetuate stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayals of black identity.
However Black Pulp! approaches pulp with a much deeper understanding of its potential– and it’s something the curators should know a thing or two about. William Villalongo is a contemporary painter who describes his own work as the product of “shamelessly rummag[ing] and appropriat[ing] iconic and not so icon mass cultural imagery.” He explains that the show’s aim was to showcase pulp’s “unique power” to “contest dominant cultural narratives.”
His curatorial other half, Mark Thomas Gibson, says that “the pulp attitude is to take the tragic and painful points of history, from Jim Crow to World War II, and challenge them through biting humor, satire, and wit.”
Gibson’s aesthetic tendencies– as expressed in his own graphic paintings and prints drawing from American comic books and ghost stories– can be seen throughout the show. To give you an idea, one curator compared his visual style and “underlying sense of combined exaltation and despair” to Raymond Pettibon’s. In a word? “Trippy.”
As you might expect, there are some pretty psychedelic works on view at Black Pulp!– the kind that we, and we trust you also, are partial too.
There’s “Abu Simbel” by Ellen Gallagher, a contemporary piece that, at first glance, comes across as an Afro-futurist vision of aliens checking out some Ancient Egyptian realness. Which is excellent in and of itself, but on further investigation, we found out that Gallagher’s piece is based on a print that belonged to one of the world’s most-famous-ever cokeheads, Sigmund Freud. The original print was said to have hung in Freud’s library, which means he could have conceivably gazed at it longingly for hours while pondering ways in which he, too, could design theories that would help bind and oppress entire groups of people. Neato!
Well, Gallagher serves one back to Freud. She superimposes a spaceship inspired by Sun Ra’s 1972 film Space is the Place over the outdated vision of “Africa” that reduces an entire continent to a buttload of sand and decaying remnants of an idyllic past, which by the way were only “discovered” when white people arrived there.
Of course, there are plenty of pieces that are sourced directly from the past, including classic examples of Black Power in print, including graphics by Emory Douglas, who served as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party.
The weirdest and at the same time most familiar additions to the exhibition might be the variety of book jackets, album covers, paperbacks, and movie posters, some of them even from the curators’ own collections.
Overall, it’s a fun, dynamic show with eye-popping work that’s both pleasing and challenging in that it compels us to critically consider and unpack the various facets of black identity on display. “Black Pulp!” presents these complex social archetypes in an irresistibly delicious package: pulp. And it’s not just a simplified rendering of what we’re trained to imagine as pulp, but one that’s diverse and brilliant, exploding with humor and acerbic satire, that continues to be an unbridled realm for freedom of ideas, self-determination, and resistance to oppression.
“Black Pulp!” is on view at the International Print Center New York (IPCNY) now through December 3, with a panel discussion, “Strategic Existence: Satire, Comics, and Authorship” happening Saturday October 22, 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm.