'Safety in Numbers?: Images of African American Identity and Community,' at Portland Art Museum: Review

In an untitled triptych from Carrie Mae Weems' 1990 "Kitchen Table" series, the artist presents three black-and-white photographs that sketch out a basic interaction between a mother and daughter.

In the first, we see the girl, her arms crossed in the corner, disdainfully regarding her mother's absorption in a book as she sits at the kitchen table. In the next image, the mother scolds her daughter for the disruption until, in the final photograph, both settle into parallel tasks at the table: The mother returns to her studies, while the daughter diligently draws a picture.

They are gorgeous exemplars of photographic storytelling, encapsulating an all-too-familiar family dynamic. But they also illustrate the larger themes of "Safety in Numbers?: Images of African American Identity and Community," the group show at Portland Art Museum in which they appear. In symbolic miniature, Weems dramatizes black America's negotiation of its identity between generations, tempering an optimistic faith in the possibilities of the future without losing sight of its historic hardships.

Spanning the past 75 years, "Safety" surveys many of the best-known black artists of the 20th century -- a few relevant white ones, too -- and examines how representations of black identity and community have changed in that time. The exhibition's oldest inclusions most often confront adversity in the literal terms of everyday scenes, such as Jacob Lawrence's gouache-on-paper "Harlem" series, 1943. In "Bootleg Whiskey -- You Can Buy Bootleg Whiskey for Twenty-five Cents a Quart," Lawrence pictures four black figures in a desolate apartment, using a severe geometric style that conjures German Expressionist woodcuts: One sprawls across a table, drunk, while another, wired with paranoia, peeks into the hall through a cracked door. That dejection is a far cry from "When Ends Meet," 2007, Mickalene Thomas' sparkling silkscreen-and-rhinestone portrait of Oprah Winfrey, which offers the talk-show impresario as an emblem of not only success and achievement, but also as evidence of the ascendant social movement of an entire community.

Not all of the artists in "Safety" share Thomas' celebratory attitude. Kara Walker, whose prints and etchings make up the heart of the exhibition, draws on the stereotypes and artistic styles of the Civil War era in a body of work that insists the past goes on haunting the present. Using black silhouetted figures against stark white backgrounds, Walker's trademark strategy identifies an unnerving analog for the racist perspective, in which color and shape remain, but details -- which humanize a portrait and elicit compassion -- are absent.

This approach is used to best effect in "Burning African Village Play Set With Big House and Lynching," 2006, in which Walker has created a children's toy version of a "Gone With the Wind"-style plantation. Replete with bizarre figurines, such as a naked child in a Klansman hood or an enormously endowed captive slave, Walker's "play set" is horrifying commentary, but necessarily so -- for not letting the distance imposed by history abate such a shameful memory.