Drive-By Projects opened its doors in 2010 with “Who Am I,” a show perhaps as much about finding the gallery’s tone as it was about personal identity, which has been a theme in contemporary art for 25 years or more. Lately, the stakes have been high, and so comes “Who Am I: The Sequel.”
Photographer Jay Simple cuts to the chase, digitally inserting images and intimations of lynchings into scenes around Providence, reckoning with Rhode Island’s fraught history with the slave trade. In “Moses Brown’s Plantation,” the shadow of a hanged man falls on a large house. In “He Died for Your Sins,” a black man stained with blood hangs in a gallery of gilt-framed older paintings at the RISD Museum; Christ, in a painting below, appears to gaze up at him.
Evoking racial violence at sites associated with high value and gentility, Simple rebukes those for whom turning a blind eye has been easy.
Youngsuk Suh’s video “A Day in the Life” starts out in conquering mode, as Suh manfully clears brush. When two donkeys wander into the frame, the artist abandons his task and befriends them. The video seems to slow and center, shifting from activity to receptivity. When calibrating humanity’s identity vis-a-vis nature, we need both.
In fluid Alice Neel-style portraits, Roberta Paul paints two young daughters of a Haitian neighbor, watching identity form and modulate.
Naomi and Naime appear in black, linear strokes on nut-brown grounds. The only other tone is red — in their bracelets, or in the ball upon which each girl sits in individual portraits. They goof around covering each other’s mouths; they pose, at once proud and shy. We sense the spirit of each, and how the light of Paul’s attention warms them.
Parts of identity are hidebound, and parts must be adaptive. When the stuck parts are prodded to move, it hurts. Growing up is hard. Naomi and Naime remind us that it can be miraculous, too.
WHO AM I: THE SEQUEL
At Drive-By Projects, 81 Spring St., Watertown, through Nov. 11. 617-835-8255, www.drive-byprojects.comCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.