KORI NEWKIRK at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West), through April 24. $ 12, stu/srs $9; Wed after 6 pm free. 416-979-6660. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Kori Newkirk's take on racial politics is almost as silky-smooth as the synthetic hair he uses to thread his pony beads.
The bead curtains, photographic self-portraits and a large kite hovering over the room all offer a pleasant aesthetic experience. Only once you start asking why he puts these objects together do you get a sense of his provocative edge.
Through his exploration of issues of African-American identity, Newkirk opens the question of self-identity.
In a previous poignant exhibition, the Bronx-born, L.A.-based artist lynched five black tires, each filled with photos from his family album, in a small white room.
For his first Canadian show, part of the reliably great Present Tense series at the AGO , Newkirk offers a more subtle installation.
The two curtains stand out as the strongest and most lucid pieces. From a slight distance, meticulous rows of colourful pony beads threaded on synthetic hair become idyllic images of the suburbs, possibly inspired by the artist's childhood. Breaker shows a tree against a white sky, and Younger depicts a tidy bungalow with a nice lawn, clean street and even some white, puffy clouds.
The typically white images appear to clash with the African-American materials, yet Newkirk's childhood connection to suburbia runs counter to the dominant stereotypes of race and environment.
On the same theme, a set of large photographs depicts Newkirk so close up that we never really see what he looks like.
Accomplishing a similar ambiguity, the artist sports a white shirt and black tie while lounging on a lawn in a smaller set of self-portraits. Here he obscures his face with a hand, or offers only small blurry shots.
Culturally imposed identities beg for artistic address. Nice to see it done well.