Up they go: Museum preparators mount the works for "Street Level," including, from left, Mark Bradford's BlackWall Street; Robin Rhode's Untitled, Dream Houses; and Bradford's Untitled (Shoe). Michael Zirkle
Up they go: Museum preparators mount the works for "Street Level," including, from left, Mark Bradford's BlackWall Street; Robin Rhode's Untitled, Dream Houses; and Bradford's Untitled (Shoe). Michael Zirkle

Street Smarts

In his first exhibit as curator of contemporary art at the Nasher Museum, Trevor Schoonmaker brings together a trio of up-and-coming artists who mix urban funk with international flair.
June 1, 2007
 

At first glance, Me Against the World is little more than a repeated pattern of stacked discs forming towering, teetering columns. Drawn with pencil on a nine-foot by five-foot expanse of off-white paper retrieved from a dumpster, the unframed piece is literally stapled to a gallery wall in the Nasher Museum of Art.

And yet, even if you come to the piece without knowing anything about the artist, William Cordova—his Peruvian heritage and working-class upbringing in Miami, his itinerant lifestyle—it's impossible to ignore the impulse to locate the artist (or yourself) in the flat landscape. Is Cordova represented by that disc jutting out halfway down a column on the left, disrupting the predictable, prescribed order of things? Is it possible to retain a sense of individuality when you live in a densely populated urban setting? How many countless other people are doing the same thing you are, day in and day out, just to get a little bit further ahead—or, at the very least, not to lose your place in the clamoring queue of humanity?

Across the gallery, the digital-animation piece He Got Game shows South African artist Robin Rhode, his face obscured by a hat pulled low over his brow, going airborne as he somersaults and dunks a basketball into a waiting net. It takes only a moment to see that the net and the lopsided score (115-16) are drawn in chalk on blotchy pavement and that Rhode is repositioning himself for each frame to give viewers a stop-motion view of his virtual agility. For the literal minded, the sequence is simply a playful amusement. But there are subtler undertones at work, too: Athletic prowess can be a ticket out of rough neighborhoods, a long-shot chance at wealth and status. Embodying as it does the striving and struggle of the underclass, He Got Game takes on additional resonance when considered through the lens of apartheid.

Cordova and Rhode are two of the artists featured in the Nasher's "Street Level" exhibit, which runs through the end of July. It's the first show organized by the museum's new curator of contemporary art, Trevor Schoonmaker, who says that the works "address ways that people culturally transform space, mark territory, and position themselves within the landscape of the city."

Los Angeles native Mark Bradford, the third artist in "Street Level," draws from the same types of cultural wells as Cordova and Rhode to create his own vision of urban landscapes. Scorched Earth is a vibrantly colored geometric composition that Kurt Schwitters might have made had he come from twenty-first-century South Central. The enormous collage (ten feet wide by nine feet high) provides a bird's-eye view of a city grid and repeating rectangular patterns that could be rows of tenements or nameless headstones—or something else entirely. Bradford, a gay black man who grew up in a boarding house with his mother and grandmother, creates visual worlds that question what it means to belong or not belong to one's community and the ways in which mainstream (white) society codifies who and what is considered threatening or safe, valuable or disposable.

Schoonmaker joined the Nasher staff in the summer of 2006 and figured that a tightly focused, three-person show would be the most manageable approach for his curatorial debut, given the short turnaround time between conception and execution. He liked the idea of work inspired by, or generated from, the hustle and bustle of the inner-city street, a mash-up of youth culture and melting-pot funk. He'd gotten to know Cordova, Rhode, and Bradford while working as an independent curator in New York; each, in his own way, was capturing that electrifying energy in different yet complementary ways. "Thematically it made sense to group them together," he says, "because all three share a use of found materials and draw inspiration from the street cultures where they live."

In keeping with the museum's goal of focusing on modern and contemporary art, Schoonmaker is responsible for generating excitement—and visitor turnout—for up-and-coming artists. His curatorial instincts appear sound. In the months before "Street Level" opened in March, Cordova had a successful solo show at the prestigious Arndt & Partner gallery in Berlin; Rhode won the 2006 W South Beach Artist Commission at Art Basel Miami Beach in December; and Bradford received the $100,000 Bucksbaum Award for his body of work in the 2006 Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Coincidentally, when he mentioned his ideas for "Street Level," to Blake Byrne '57, chair of the Nasher's advisory board and a prominent contemporary-art collector, Schoonmaker was pleasantly surprised to learn that Byrne's own collection included four Cordovas, which are on loan to the museum for "Street Level.")

Schoonmaker says that even though the three "Street Level" artists have earned degrees in fine arts and been represented in galleries and shows in the U.S., Japan, Italy, Germany, Taiwan, and Mexico, each one is also strongly rooted in his respective social and cultural origins. He says that the artists' growing celebrity—as measured by awards and recognition, as well as the ability to command higher prices for their work—has not altered their compass of values.

"Mark, William, and Robin started using these unconventional means and materials to make their art primarily because they didn't have much money," Schoonmaker says. "Part of what keeps [all three artists] grounded is that they come from such humble backgrounds, and while they are very much a part of the global, cosmopolitan art world, each one of them remains connected to the particular aesthetics and culture that they came from. I would be shocked if any of them started producing work purely in response to market influences."

Modern monolith: Schoonmaker, the show's curator, right, helps artist William Cordova reconstruct Badussy (or Machu Picchu after dark), an installation composed of discarded stereo speakers, candy, pennies, broken vinyl records, record jackets, and candles

Modern monolith: Schoonmaker, the show's curator, right, helps artist William Cordova reconstruct Badussy (or Machu Picchu after dark), an installation composed of discarded stereo speakers, candy, pennies, broken vinyl records, record jackets, and candles. Michael Zirkle

Appropriately enough, Schoonmaker made plans for pushing the reach of "Street Level" beyond the confines of a gallery wall. He scheduled satellite events that included a block party celebrating Cordova and fellow artist Leslie Hewitt's site-specific billboard-art project in downtown Durham, and a discussion and demonstration of musical and artistic "sampling" presented by local hip-hop producer Ninth Wonder and faculty members from Duke and North Carolina Central University.

Joining the Nasher staff has been a homecoming of sorts for Schoonmaker. Born in Winston-Salem, he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1992 with a major in art history. After earning a master's degree in art history from the University of Michigan in 1998, he moved to New York and immersed himself in the clubs, galleries, museums, and collectives that make up the city's dynamic arts scene. Within a scant year-and-a-half, he had organized his first exhibition, "The Magic City," a six-artist show at Chelsea's Brent Sikkema gallery. The New York Times gave the show a good review, noting that it approached multiculturalism "not as a bureaucratic program but as a kind of delirious pluralism."

As his contacts and connections within the contemporary art world grew, Schoonmaker sought innovative ways to mount shows that brought together multiple voices and viewpoints, while working within the constraints of his vocation. "A big-name curator can get paid decently to put together a show," he says, "but as an independent curator, you either have to be independently wealthy or make huge sacrifices" when it comes to the scale and scope of a show. Even while pitching thematic ideas for group shows, Schoonmaker pursued an idea that had consumed his thoughts for years—a show devoted to the life and influence of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

A galvanizing force in Nigerian politics and world music, Kuti, who has been compared with Bob Marley, Huey Newton, and Malcolm X, among others, was a daring cultural hero, known for his biting social commentary, antigovernment stance, and infectiously catchy sound, which he dubbed "Afrobeat." Musicians such as David Byrne, Brian Eno, James Brown, and Sun Ra have all credited Kuti with influencing their work.

"Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti," organized at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 2003, brought together dozens of international artists, photographers, and writers. Schoonmaker also edited an accompanying book of essays titled Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway.

"Black President," which traveled to San Francisco, London, and Cincinnati, established Schoonmaker's reputation not only as a savvy and prescient curator, but also as a multidisciplinary bridge builder. A series of other shows confirmed his gift for forging innovative, cross-cultural conversations: "D Troit", a group show that interpreted the city of Detroit through art, popular culture, and music, was mounted at Gigantic ArtSpace in New York and Urbis in Manchester, England, in 2004. In 2006, he co-curated "The Beautiful Game: Contemporary Art and Fútbol," an exhibit that explored, through the lens of soccer, such themes as national identity, globalism, competition, and spectatorship.

In a relatively short time, Schoonmaker had become a respected and sought-after curator and lecturer. He came home for a family visit over the 2005 Christmas holidays and decided to check out the buzz surrounding the newly opened Nasher Museum, including its inaugural exhibit, "The Forest: Politics, Poetics and Practice."

Up they go: Museum preparators mount the works for "Street Level," including, from left, Mark Bradford&squot;s BlackWall Street; Robin Rhode&squot;s Untitled, Dream Houses; adn Bradford&squot;s Untitled (Shoe)

Hidden messages: Cordova, left, often obscures messages and materials in his work; for Badussy, goldleaf on top of the installation created a glow on the gallery ceiling, suggesting a connection between earthly observers and the Incan sun god. Michael Zirkle

"I had gone online to see if there might be someone at the Nasher who could give me a tour of the exhibit," he says, "and I discovered two interesting things. One was that Sarah Schroth, who had been one of my professors at UNC, was the senior curator, and two, they were looking to hire a contemporary-art curator." Out of curiosity, he asked Schroth for details. By the time the conversation ended, she was urging Schoonmaker to send in an application for the position. He did, and then headed back to his New York life.

Schroth and Kimerly Rorschach, the Nasher's director, had been scheduled to come to New York to negotiate the purchase of the museum's first purchase of contemporary art, Untitled #111 (Little Ed's Daughter Margaret), by Petah Coyne. They met with Schoonmaker, who recalls the get-together as a relaxed conversation rather than a formal interview. Rorschach says that Schoonmaker's impressive track record quickly moved him to the top of the short list of finalists for the job.

"We were intrigued by Trevor's focus in contemporary African and African-American art, as we thought it would be an especially good fit with our larger mission and vision—to create an exciting and distinctive program in contemporary art that would attract both local support and national attention," she says. "As a new museum with no previous track record, the Nasher must build a profile over time. Trevor's particular expertise and vision for the program, the synergies with the resources already here, and his tremendous talents made him the perfect candidate to help us pursue this ambitious vision."

Lured by the prospect of having the creative flexibility and financial support to implement his ideas, as well as the opportunity to move back to his home state, Schoonmaker accepted the offer to join the Nasher and immediately began planning what would become "Street Level."

The success of "Street Level" and the other exhibits he has planned will depend on how effectively he can "broaden the conversation" about contemporary art and artists beyond the walls of the Nasher, Schoonmaker says. "One of the things that I have to make an argument for with any show that I do is, why these particular artists and why now?"

For "Street Level," the answer is deceptively simple: "Even though the artists are from urban areas, the work that they are making reflects what is going on here in Durham, too," Schoonmaker says. With a large African-American community, a growing Latino immigrant population, and a downtown that is slowly being rebuilt after decades of decline, he says, Durham's quirks and qualities are as suitable a backdrop for contemporary art as anywhere else.