Lorraine O’Grady Lorraine O’Grady

The nuances of the word "working" in the title of the Cooley Gallery's new exhibition, Working History: African American Objects, reveal themselves gradually. These are "working" histories in that they're still in process and subject to change; a piece of art is commonly referred to as a "work"; the artists in the show are working through complex institutions of beliefs; and most pointedly, labor (work) was the impetus for America's slave trade and remains a harsh symbol of modern social and economic imbalances.

Working History is a compact show, rich in these sorts of subtleties. The artists here are unified by their use of historical tropes and imagery in their own work. Kara Walker's famous silhouette narratives revive 19th-century modes and inject appropriately grotesque poeticism; Sam Durant's replica of Huey P. Newton's famous "peacock chair" is photographed with a shadowless, sterile precision; Glenn Ligon's "Harriet Tubman (version 2) #1" was made by giving old "Black Power" coloring books to children, and then enlarging andreproducing the kids' "coloring of history."

It's an intelligent and tidy premise for a show, but Working History aims even higher with pieces that operate on a more metaphorical level. With a rococo garishness that recalls the pomp of the Mardi Gras Indians, Nick Cave constructs enormously intricate body suits that both symbolize and critique the fetishization of the black male body. Far quieter is Dave McKenzie's "Open Letters," which presents two versions of a letter McKenzie wrote to an unknown motorist who almost plowed him down one day. The first letter finds McKenzie respectful and generous, though nominally reprimanding; the other version, however, is pathetically deferential in comparison, and goes beyond civic selflessness into the arena of self-demoralizing. African American men of the mid-century were often forced to maintain a cheerful tone of subservient acquiescence during confrontations; when McKenzie apologizes to the motorist for almost ruining his day by getting hit in the crosswalk, his subtle exaggeration of the older mentality is sympathetic in its indictment.

Appropriately, actual historic documents, including a yearbook showing Reed's first African American graduate, and a radical "Think Black" coloring book from 1969 complement the art in Working History. The inclusion of documents like these not only provides interesting sidebars to the art, but it puts art and artifacts on closer footing. The beauty and materiality of the non-art objects are able to shine; likewise, we are reminded that art is almost always an aesthetic document of contemporary thought, and not just a bourgeois object for leisurely contemplation.