To say that the artist Deborah Roberts is interested in ideas of beauty and race is like saying Stephen Hawking is interested in physics and cosmology. Beauty and race are Roberts’ whole deal; she is incisively engaged with those ideas, specifically as they have applied, and continue to apply, to African-American women. Roberts is interested—in sinking the sword of justice into the Eurocentric beauty standards that women of African heritage have struggled to embody for centuries.
We’ve been hearing about the Beauty of Blackness since at least the 1960s, so certainly our culture has absorbed this lesson, right? And yet: just last week, a white woman in West Virginia called Michelle Obama an “ape in heels” and said, incredibly, “It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady back in the White House.”
Roberts is affronted by these objective, binary ideals of beauty. Her most recognizable works in this, her second outing at Art Palace, are continuations of the type of photomontages she showed at the gallery in 2014. These collages of black girls, surgically cobbled together with grotesque limbs and exaggerated features, sometimes of white people, evoke her own earlier work, as well as the Dallas artist Jean Lacy, and before her to the collaged figures of Dada artists Hannah Höch and George Grosz.
Roberts’ collages here are all isolated figures on blank backgrounds. This is an effective trope with its own rich art historical heritage—people like looking at people, and when you strip away everything from the figure you concentrate the full force of the viewer’s attention. If you think about the works of Barkley Hendricks, Robert Longo, and locally, Vincent Valdez and David McGee (to name a few), artists isolate a figure the way wolves cut animals out of a herd: the better to feast on it with our eyes. And Roberts uses mismatched limbs and facial features like the Dada artists did, and for the same reason: as an insane-looking response to insanity, and to illustrate that something in the world has gone terribly wrong.
Roberts has certain cutout body parts she’s fond of: a freakishly long tongue appears in a couple of these works, and a wide-open mouth that’s either howling or about to engage in a sex act is another favorite. In one work, a black girl’s serious, direct gaze is paired with a smiling mouthful of gold teeth pasted across her crotch. But the obvious sexual suggestion (of eating) is belied by the grotesquerie of the collaged bits, which Roberts seems to have deliberately chosen for their grim lack of sensuality. The gallery’s essay on the show comments: “Black girls are not asked to be young,” and Roberts’ pig-tailed little girls in knee socks are indeed stripped of their innocence even as they’re armored with a kind of ferocious power by the addition of monstrously sexualized adult features.
Along with the collages are new graphic prints in red and black text. In one, Roberts has placed duct tape across the paper and printed loaded words over it: Patriotism and [riot] in brackets, suggesting the old Jeffersonian adage that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and even fundamental to maintaining love of country. Other text pieces involve roughly printed words like bad offset printing. In the best of these, Roberts prints black-sounding women’s names (Tynisha, Shawanna, Roneshia) in a jittery, repeated overlay of red and black. Printed over them in a nearly-illegible, but unmistakable, light yellow, are four white women’s names: lean in close and you can barely discern Bethany, Lindsey, Becky, Haley. Noticeable by omission is the diminutive of Roberts’ own name: Debbie.
What is a committed, black activist artist to do about sharing a name with the Pollyanna blonde girl who was in the movie Singin’ In The Rain? Or the other blonde who sang You Light Up My Life? Or the other one who sang Heart of Glass? One thing she can do is to subvert this birthright, by reversing the invisibility of African-Americans described by Ralph Ellison and making the whites the ones who are hard to see. Those faint yellow names may be all but illegible, but you know they’re there, like Barbie hair taped in little clumps to the surface of a Constructivist manifesto.
The power of black names has reverberated since the late 1960s, when athletes like Lew Alcindor and Cassius Clay abandoned their given names and adopted Kareem and Muhammad, and black parents quit giving their kids English names, as a badge of pride and a meaningful token of resistance. Of course, these names have come to be stereotypically associated with aggression and danger in the case of black men, and bad attitudes and ghetto style in the case of black women. It even affects people’s job prospects. Against this backdrop, Roberts pulls off a clever visual trick: who’s going to notice—or rather, who’s going to normalize—a pale yellow Becky or a Haley, against a sea of strong and vibrant red L’Keishas and black Jzonques?
Roberts writes of creating “a dialogue between the ideas of inclusion, dignity, consumption, and subjectivity” in her work, and I suspect she wants to blow up traditional objective standards of beauty and comportment as they apply to women. Everyone wants to be beautiful, and in Roberts’ world, they are.