By Sheila Wickouski
The Rubell Museum DC, located on the site of the historic Randall School, opened its doors to the public in late October with an exhibit titled What’s Going On, a reference to the groundbreaking 1971 album by Randall School alumnus Marvin Gaye, who sang in the glee club as a junior high student in the very auditorium where the exhibition takes place.
The title also refers to the cornerstone of the museum’s inaugural exhibit: Keith Haring’s Untitled (Against All Odds), 1989, a series of 20 works on paper inspired by Gaye’s lyrics and created while Haring listened to the album as he mourned the death of Rubell family member Steve Rubell, who passed away from AIDS at age 45.
The stunning entrance to the Rubell Museum’s galleries sets the stage with white oak floors and beautifully exposed brick arches over windows streaming in natural light.
In the revitalized former auditorium loom four supersized, powerful works, each unique in theme and presentation. The glitter of gold tones in El Anatsui’s Another Man’s Cloth, (2006) created with aluminum liquor bottle caps and copper wire, catches the eye immediately. Kehinde Wiley’s oil on canvas work Sleep (2008) invites comparisons to reclining figures from centuries of statues and paintings. Christopher Myers’ Earth (2020) of appliqué fabric connects the traditions of quilt making with storytelling. Vaughn Spann’s Big Black Rainbow (Smoky Eyes) (2019) reveals the complexities of textures through its layers of terry cloth and paint.
Former classrooms have been converted to galleries to display collected works from a single artist or works from multiple artists addressing similar societal and cultural themes, presenting cutting-edge art for exploration and reflection.
Consider the infinite possibility of variety in media through photography alone. A floor-to-ceiling collection of over 80 photographs by Hank Willis Thomas, a former Duke Ellington High School student, overwhelms with images of real people, transformed by the camera into art works to inform and share ideas about identity in popular culture.
Mickalene Thomas is noted for her powerful, complex works that connect sexuality, beauty and power. Her life-sized, elaborate portraits are based on self portraits and harken back to images that range from 19th century French painting through 20th century Blaxploitation films. Mama Bush Il, Keep the Home Fires Burnin’ (2006) composed of rhinestones, acrylic and enamel on panel, is stunning.
Carrie Mae Weems’ You Became a Scientific Profile/An Anthropological Debate/ A Negroid Type/& A Photographic Subject (from From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried series)
(1995-1996) four chromogenic prints with sandblasted text on glass, supports the thesis of photography as a tool of cultural stereotyping and racism.
While current societal and political issues are at the forefront of the exhibit, there are works that call back to our shared history. One gallery pairs Matthew Day Jackson’s Harriet (First portrait) (2006) with Leonard Drew’s Untitled, (1992) a wall created with cotton and wax.
There are realistic depictions of modern conditions, like Paulo Nazareth’s color photograph Untitled, from the News from the Americas series (2011-2012), of two bare black feet stepping on an American flag that could be in today’s news story.
The variety of media for the message is varied, including the complexity of Day Jackson’s Chariot (The Day After The End of Days) (2006), a full scale work which uses over a dozen objects from fluorescent lights to buttons and fills the room with its presence. There are works where the image is words, like Jenny Holzer’s aluminum plaques. Huang Yong Ping’s series of pots combines ceramics and taxidermy.
What there is not is any rule that says that this is what you should think about a work. The presentation is for each to experience the art work and how it relates to them. Even as the building has been refurbished, it retains the essence of what it was over a century ago, a place to come to be with others and find “what’s going on.”