High sheds new light on 'Freedom'

Artists interpret Civil Rights photos

Here are the stories of three artists and the works they created.

Hank Willis Thomas (born 1976)

• Work: "After 1968, Unbranded": a gallery of images from magazine ads (sans identifying logos, etc.) designed for black audiences between 1968 and the present.

Back story: Hank Willis Thomas is closer to civil rights history than "After 1968's" other participants; it was part of his birthright. His mother, Deborah Willis, is a well-known photography historian; he is familiar with the images in "Road to Freedom" and knows (or knew) a number of artists well.

"Martin Luther King is integral to my project," says Thomas. So are artists of the 1980s, such Richard Prince and Barbara Kruger, who critiqued mass culture and consumerism. So are the merciless cultural satires of comedian Chris Rock and "Saturday Night Live."

And so is a personal tragedy. Thomas came to know the destructive force of materialism when his cousin was killed over a gold chain. That incident is a subtle subtext in "Unbranded."

Here's how it comes together. King is the starting point. His work enabled black Americans to improve their economic position, and when they did, more companies began marketing products to them. But Thomas believes ads market more than soap or hamburgers; they are both a reflection of our values, tastes and hidden thoughts and a means by which we absorb them.

"I think advertising can say more about what our hopes and dreams were at a specific moment in time than a whole book," he says.

Thomas has pored over the ads in old magazines and chosen two from each year. By presenting them stripped of context, he hopes to reveal the messages hidden beneath the glossy surfaces.

"It's the role of my generation to make sense of all this stuff," he says.

Nadine Robinson (born 1968)

• Work: "Coronation Theme: Organon": an architectural assemblage of 30 loudspeaker cabinets playing a collage of sounds, from gospel music to protest speeches.

• Back story: London-born Robinson's work draws from a rich brew of influences and ideas. As a student, she admired minimal art but found pure abstraction wanting. The rise of multiculturalism in the art world encouraged her to find content in her Jamaican roots and African-American identity. But she was turned off by the preachy, scolding tone of work she saw. She aims for seduction instead.

Robinson based her sculpture on the Jamaican "house of joy," a multispeaker sound system that provides the music for communal street parties. The term also resonates as a reference to the musical traditions of African-American churches.

Her piece is not all joy, however. Robinson, whose knowledge of the civil rights era was limited, was particularly moved by photos of Birmingham police spraying protesters with fire hoses at Kelly Ingram Park. In her work, she imagines the event as a sort of baptism, a trial by fire, into the civil rights movement, and hopes to communicate both its horrific aspects and the heroism of the protesters.

"I want visitors to see, hear and feel the experience," she says.

Adam Pendleton (born 1980)

• Work: "Black Dada" paintings. Silk-screened on black surfaces are letters from the term "black dada" and details of Sol LeWitt's sculpture series "Incomplete Open Cubes," whose mathematical permutations theoretically continue endlessly.

• Back story: Pendleton, who works in many media, including poetry and performance, prefers the term "cultural agent" to artist.

When invited to participate in "After 1968," Pendleton says he was excited but wary because he is skeptical about icons of any sort — which he believes oversimplify history.

"I have great respect for the photos [in "Road to Freedom"] and the kind of ideas they represent," he says. "But go to any inner-city school and you'd never know the civil rights movement occurred."

His aim is to re-complicate things. "I'm very concerned with cultural history and recycling or re-presenting history," he says, "in bringing things into the conversation that were left out."

His paintings make connections between the avant-garde art of the 1960s — minimalism, conceptual art — and the politics of the time. "The civil rights movement is viewed as different from other movements for change in the '60s," he says. "I think they are related."

"Black Dada" is the title of a 1964 poem by Amiri Baraka, a founder of the Black Arts Movement. LeWitt's "Cubes" represent conceptual art, but also Pendleton's vision of history as something unfixed and unfolding — like the legacy of the civil rights movement.

ON EXHIBIT

"After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy" and "Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968"

Through Oct. 5. $18; $15, seniors and students with IDs; $11, children 6-17; free, members and children 5 and younger. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. High Museum of Art. 1280 Peachtree St, Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.

OTHER 'AFTER 1968' ARTISTS

Deborah Grant (born 1968): "The Flaming Fury of Bayard Rustin the Queen at the End of the Bar," an installation of 24 collaged panels.

Leslie Hewitt (born 1977): "Riffs on Real Time" and "Make It Plain," photographic series; "Grounded," a sculpture.

Jefferson Pinder (born 1970): "Juke," a three-monitor video installation, and "White Noise," a film.

Otabenga Jones & Associates (Robert A. Pruitt, born 1975; D. Jabari Anderson, born 1973; Jamal Cyrus, born 1973; Kenya Evans, born 1974): An educational packet about the year 1968 that will be sent to Atlanta residents.

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