Brilliant show puts Black artists at the centre

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In her series Vanishing Point (2018-), Barbara Walker embosses compositions of works by artists including Paolo Veronese and Titian into thick white paper, then draws in the details of the painting’s lone Black figure, inevitably positioned on the margins. An expanded display from Vanishing Point anchors The Time Is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure, the National Portrait Gallery’s survey of work by 22 contemporary artists based in the UK and US.

Other works from Walker’s Vanishing Point series perform a central role in another major London show, Entangled Pasts, which runs concurrently at the Royal Academy. Each exhibition takes these works as a kind of departure point, but to quite different ends. Where Entangled Pasts looked to Britain’s colonial history through the work of its diaspora artists, The Time Is Always Now addresses the present moment, through works that assertively move the Black figure from the margins to the centre of the canvas.

The Time Is Always Now covers an enormous range of styles and intents. Included here are some of the most exciting artists working right now (and, admittedly, a few I admire conceptually but whose actual work excites me less).

‘Vanishing Point 24 (Mignard) ‘by Barbara Walker (2021) (Photo: Chris Keenan)

Jennifer Packer, who was the subject of a 2020 Serpentine exhibition, is a painter of extraordinary skill and depth of feeling. There is such intimacy and tenderness to her work, which is particularly attentive to the power relationship between artist and model.

Packer is showing three works – a small portrait, an interior with a sleeping figure, and a mood piece painted in intense blood reds. All three capture figures in moments of introspection or repose – they don’t care that we’re looking. Packer applies paint in great washes, fine strokes, scratches and wipes – the figures seem to be emerging from layers of paint. Ivan (2013) is a study in mauve: a young man sitting barefoot, gently melding into a cloudy expanse of pale purple. In Untitled (K. Drew) (2019) a figure rests half-dressed on a bed. Packer gives us her full, close view, including the Converse high tops and other debris beneath the bed.

The Californian painter Noah Davis died tragically young, aged only 32, and we only now seem to be catching up with the rich body of work he left behind him. His paintings here are ominous dreamscapes. In 40 Acres and a Unicorn (2007) a boy faces us, sitting on a donkey with a horn coming from its forehead, surrounded by nightmarish darkness like a messenger from another realm. The title alludes to the unrealised promise of “40 acres and a mule” – of land ownership, in other words – made to enslaved workers. The promise, like the unicorn the boy rides on, turned out to occupy the realm of myth rather than reality.

 'Ivan (2013)' is one of three work at the exhibition by Jennifer Packer, capturing figures in moments of introspection or repose
‘Ivan (2013)’ is one of three work at the exhibition by Jennifer Packer, capturing figures in moments of introspection or repose

Black Wall Street (2008) again alludes to historic events – in this case the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, in which a prosperous Black neighbourhood in Oklahoma was attacked by white supremacists. Davis’s painting is full of lowering menace. Bodies lie dead on the grass in front of a fancy pavilion, looked over by a girl in white ankle socks and a single white glove. What looks like a missile is bursting through a backdrop of storm clouds. At the entranceway (to the painting as well as the pavilion) wild turkeys stand in silver cages on columns topped with piles of golden shit. The whole thing is blisteringly irreverent.

Davis appears in person in a tribute from his friend Henry Taylor. The title of Right hand, wing man, best friend, and all of the above! (2023) reads like a line from a best man’s speech Taylor never got to make. The work is a double portrait, with Davis and Taylor on rattan chairs sitting on an expansive lawn with ochre-yellow hills in the background – an evening scene perhaps, as they sit out sharing jokes and cigarettes. A second work by Taylor – Father, Son, Fun (2022) – likewise foregrounds a relationship between Black men caught in a moment of private leisure, with a baseball suspended in mid-air between them.

The Time Is Always Now unfolds in many directions, exploring many themes. It attends to the conventions and stereotypes according to which Black people are portrayed in visual culture and offers counter positions. It engages with episodes in Black history that were left un-commemorated by grand paintings in great museums, and beyond that, asks which lives and which histories deserve commemoration. It is playful, acerbic, fantastical and challenging, positioning the Black figure at the centre of brilliantly experimental work.

'1975(8)' (2013) by the late Californian painter Noah Davis (Photo: Kerry McFate)
‘1975(8)’ (2013) by the late Californian painter Noah Davis (Photo: Kerry McFate)

Honorary godfather of this show is Kerry James Marshall, who is deservedly given a room of his own. Marshall has engaged in depth with various histories of painting, and his work constitutes a fantastical alternative archive, bestowing visibility to figures known only in name, and playing with the grand conventions of portraiture and history painting. Here, he is represented by four smaller works, each in its own way a portrait. Marshall’s figures are afforded no skin tone – they are reductively, ruthlessly rendered black.

In Untitled (Painter) (2009) a young woman with elaborately coiled hair stands with palette in hand working on a self-portrait rendered as a “colour by numbers”, the rules of which she seems to be defiantly ignoring. Marshall is gleefully juggling art references here – not only the tradition of artists’ self-portraits, but also the “colour by number” paintings in the early Pop Art of Andy Warhol.

There is so much good stuff here – I haven’t even mentioned Hurvin Anderson’s spare and elegant barber shop works, shimmering on the edge of abstraction. Or Toyin Ojih Odutola’s irresistible fantasy portraits of a wealthy Nigerian family. Nevertheless, there are works which – to me – feel more of the digital than the physical realm.

'Untitled (Painter)' by Kerry James Marshall (2009) (Photo: Nathan Keay)
‘Untitled (Painter)’ by Kerry James Marshall (2009) (Photo: Nathan Keay)

Portrait of a Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright) (2009) seats its titular figure across a tabletop from us, in an outsized white coat with a Japanese kimono collar. She sits between a carved mask and a tulip in a glass vase – two objects perhaps suggesting a field of study, from African sculpture to Dutch still life paintings.

I really don’t love realist sculpture, particularly not those works produced by 3D scanning, as in the case of Thomas J Price’s monumental As Sound Turns to Noise (2023). Still, I can’t deny the work is handsomely installed – a bright bronze figure amalgamating the details of many different sitters, almost three metres high against an inky blue wall. The cool, clean detachment of Amy Sherald’s paintings of women, their skin painted in dead tones of grey, likewise leave me cold. I love the idea of Titus Kaphar’s cut-out portraits – in which white figures are excised from the centre of historic works to show other faces beyond them – but the paintings themselves have a photographic flatness.

Such quibbles aside, this is a rich show – a compelling survey of figurative art, centring the experience and viewpoint of Black artists. While they might not have been programmed in tandem, it is also a fascinating companion exhibition to Entangled Pasts.

The Time Is Always Now: Artists Reframe The Black Figure’ is at the National Portrait Gallery until 19 May

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