How better to welcome the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston back to the land of the living Saturday than by talking about a show that represents its beating heart? “i’m yours: Encounters With Art in Our Times” is exactly that thing, by terms somber and ebullient, a reflection of both the ICA and the city it serves with unswerving purpose. Permanent collection shows can sometimes have the feeling of rearranging the sock drawer, a practical duty that unearths the occasional gem. “i’m yours” does just the opposite; it reaffirms a mission crystal-clear from the start, carried forward to right now.
This is the second time the ICA has reopened over the past year, though its most recent closure started before and ends well after its nearest peers. (Museum of Fine Arts and the Gardner Museum both ended their winter pandemic shutdowns in early February.) Over the course of this long pandemic year, the ICA has taken state health guidelines and consistently gone one better with community in mind and at heart. There’s no better emblem of how deeply local the ICA sees its mission than across the water in East Boston, where last spring it converted its three-year-old Watershed annex into a food distribution facility for neighbors in need. When it comes to rhetoric around art serving social purpose, the ICA walks the walk.
“i’m yours” is, by necessity, pragmatic — the pandemic cut deep into every museum, depleting finances and complicating the basic mechanics of exhibition making, like travel and shipping. That makes collection shows a practical fallback, which “i’m yours” surely is. But it’s also revelatory about the institution’s vision and priorities. The ICA only started collecting in 2006, a full 70 years after its 1936 founding. That surely makes it easier to seem fresh and relevant, with its long bets yet to be settled. But it’s no small thing to walk into “i’m yours” and see things the ICA’s larger peers have only recently started to tackle in earnest — the underrepresentation of women and minority artists is the big one — knit into its collecting practices from the start.
The show’s namesake, a commanding work by the painter Henry Taylor, anchors a great big wall of portraiture, paintings and photographs both. “i’m yours,” the painting, is the kind of plainspoken self-declaration that disarms with its stark, soft humanity: A Black man in the foreground, uncomfortably close; a woman and another man lined up behind him, their expressions an arc of shrugging endurance against a hot-pink backdrop. Taylor, devoted to his own brand of painterly figuration centered on everyday Black life, broke ground in the early 2000s as orthodoxies began to erode around what counted as contemporary art. Now, alongside artists like Kerry James Marshall, he’s a powerful influence on a new generation of Black artists including Tschabalala Self.
Taylor is as powerful an emblem of the ICA’s priorities as you’ll find, but he’s far from alone here. His work is the lodestar in a constellation of difference, in both image and form. A painterly counterweight might be Chantal Joffe’s 2009 “Self-portrait With Esme,” a pallid and intimate mother-daughter scene. But “i’m yours” is less about setting balance than representing the world for the messy thing it is. Taylor’s piece is framed by Catherine Opie’s dark and moody photo portrait of choreographer Elizabeth Streb from 2013 and South African artist Zanele Muholi’s long-running “Faces and Places” portrait series of gay Black South Africans, which are peppered throughout.
Rineke Dijkstra, the Dutch photographer with whom the ICA has cultivated a long relationship, is here with portraits from Croatia and Israel. So is the American painter Alice Neel, not given much attention until late in life, with “Portrait of Vera Beckerhoff,” a typically frank work from 1972 with the sitter square to viewer, soft eyes locked with your own. A panoply of contemporary portraiture, the display suggests no right or wrong, with clarity and honesty of purpose as the sole unifying feature. It’s powerful and confusing, and it should be. It forces you to pick and choose, which tells you more about yourself than anything else; that’s art doing what it should.
“i’m yours” is laid out in jaggedly discreet portions. (The first, with all the portraits, is called “Looking Out.”) They’re divided by exposed steel stud walls, drywalled on just one side. I like the implication: that collecting is ongoing, evolving, ever-unfinished, never defined so much as constantly redefined. The ICA’s collection reflects its mission but it doesn’t determine it, which, for museums weighted with longer histories, is often the other way around. This story has barely been written, giving the ICA the advantage of nimbleness in this moment of upheaval.
The show touches nerves raw to this very moment. A section called “What Remains” both acknowledges the scorched earth this pandemic year has left us, but with the reminder that in destruction lies renewal, and the end is where we start. Cornelia Parker’s “Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson),” is carnage flash-frozen in place, charred remains creeping skyward in a swarm, like living things. Nan Goldin’s 1977 picture “Chrissy with her 100-year-old Grandmother, Provincetown,” evokes the inexorable churn of time, old giving way to new.
“Home Again,” another of the show’s chapters — in a year of lockdowns and isolation, not hard to relate — reflects alternating visions of domestic anxiety (see: Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Still #3,” from 1977) and bliss. It’s heavier on the latter, though, an optimistic gesture I appreciated. Toyin Ojih Odutola’s languid “Heir Apparent,” from 2018, features a young Black man lolling in a luxurious bath. Rania Matar’s “Orly and Ruth,” a photograph of interracial sisters in loving embrace — made during the pandemic, it was taken through the window — is a portrait of plainspoken hope in dark times.
Earlier on, the show opened with visions of unflinching female power by Simone Leigh, Joan Semmel, and Louise Bourgeois. Leigh, who the ICA will steward to the Venice Biennale in 2022 as the United States’ official entry, offers her hauntingly fractured view of African diaspora through slavery and emancipation with the 2019 sculpture “Cupboard IX,” a bare-breasted female figure with a jug for head and domed skirting of dried fronds. (The dome refers to huts made by African peoples such as the Fulani; the jug, a nod to the so-called “face jugs” made in the 19th century by enslaved craftspeople in South Carolina.) Semmel came of age at the apex of Abstract Expressionism but took her own tack, applying its painterly techniques in the 1970s to the sensual pleasures of both flesh and paint with her “sex paintings” series. (“Green Heart,” on the wall here, exults indiscriminately in both.) Bourgeois’s work, 1995′s “Cell (Hands and Mirror),” is irrepressibly inscrutable, as her work often is, with an undertone of dread. The sculpture, with its ragged steel doors and windows, conceals a bed of rough marble at its heart, a pair of hands doing something unknown. It’s tense, furtive, and feels unsettlingly illicit, striking a tone to which most of us can currently relate.
“In Material,” the show’s most formal (and smallest) chapter, still quivers with the political moment. Kader Attia’s “Oil and Sugar,” 2007, is a black-and-white video of a small structure of sugar cubes — echoes of Minimalist Carl Andre’s fire brick pieces ring loudly — that dissolve in a grotesque cascade of crude oil, knitting the art movement’s past political agnosticism together with colonial plunder. Cady Noland’s “Objectification Process,” an orthopedic walker dangling bits of metal and plastic and with a cellophane-wrapped American flag in its basket, was made in 1989 as a critique of cultural commodification, but rings more loudly here and now in an era where being American itself is a wedge issue.
But the final chapter of “i’m yours” is unabashedly in tune with the times, with Lorraine O’Grady and Nari Ward striking resonant chords on race and equity. “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire” was Boston-born O’Grady’s early masterstroke, for which she masqueraded as a Guyanese beauty queen (the name translates to “Miss Black Middle Class”) in the early 1980s, crashing openings in New York as gleeful protest against the art world’s constant, casual racism. Ward, who works mostly with found objects gathered around his Harlem studio, built “Savior” as a totem for the marginalized poor. Bundling up a cast-off ladder and chair, clocks, metal fencing, and fabric, he built a monument roped together with torn garbage bags and lashed to a shopping cart, which he wheeled down 125th Street, Harlem’s main drag. The point was to make the unseen seen, and mission accomplished; in a video of Ward’s trek, he was unmissable.
That’s really what “i’m yours” is about: Art that transcends, connected to the real world. That’s what the ICA is about, too. In this strange time, limitation can be strength; “i’m yours” reaffirms that strength. It’s a clarifying moment in a year of chaos. I’ll take it.
I’M YOURS: ENCOUNTERS WITH ART IN OUR TIMES
At the Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. Through May 23. Timed tickets required. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org
CORRECTION: March 18, 2021
Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this review misidentified the race of artist Catherine Opie.
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.