issues of image and representation in the city’s black population

“Some of my best friends are black” by Larry Cook (2014)

Larry Cook may be the artist D.C.’s been waiting for. While D.C. looks less like Chocolate City and more like Chocolate-Chip City with every passing day, here’s an artist who dwells on issues of image and representation in the city’s black population—and he’s finding sure footing. Since he graduated with an MFA from George Washington University in 2013, he’s been named as a finalist for both the Trawick Prize in Bethesda and the Sondheim Artscape Prize in Baltimore, two of the highest honors in the region.


Cook’s second solo show at Hamiltonian Gallery, “Stockholm Syndrome,” sees him navigating a subtle racial dividing line. This spare show builds on other fictions about black identity, namely two classic films about slavery, to create a multimedia meta-fiction of his own. It’s big, national-picture thinking. And yet the most compelling takeaway in “Stockholm Syndrome” is a narrow one.

At first glance, “Some of My Best Friends Are Black” looks very current: White neon letters spell out the titular phrase along one of the gallery’s long walls. But this is a throwback piece: Cook is plainly sampling well-worn art history here. Text-plus-neon is signature Bruce Nauman and Glenn Ligon (and Joseph Kosuth and Tracey Emin and maybe some others). The phrase itself is mordant shorthand, a quip about the kind of excuse that white people use to preface whatever appalling thing they think about black people. Both the content and the form are vintage, snarky, and cynical.

It’s as if Cook is embracing and dismissing contemporary art as a way to tell some truth about being black—like he’s lost confidence in photography, his former medium of choice, or maybe art altogether. Once upon a time, contemporary art really did matter. Women artists, artists of color, and queer artists took up conceptual, performance, and installation art as an alternative to sculpture, painting, and even photography. The barriers to entry were lower for contemporary art. Nobody needed a degree or money or access to use a photocopier, or her body, or her ideas, to make new work. All that has changed.

Other works in “Stockholm Syndrome” don’t offer the same grip. A sound installation and a video installation borrow clips, respectively, from Roots and 12 Years a Slave. These nod at the cultural construction of black identity, but they seem to lack a working theory. They aren’t out to prove something about form. Cook also offers up “Whitewashed,” a series of text installations, gorgeous plates rendered in plexiglass and wood frames. In these, Cook references everything from medieval art history by Kurt Weitzmann to From Babylon to Timbuktu, a source for the Black Hebrew Israelites (you know, the shouty guys outside the Gallery Place–Chinatown Metro station). Taken together, they read like deliberate non sequiturs, but I can’t quite find the thread.

“Stockholm Syndrome” feels inscrutable because it’s incomplete. Cook’s mixing up his modes to make his point now, where content carried his photography. This is good. Amid the national fury over police brutality, housing inequality, every kind of inequality—all these issues that have always been with us but have only now taken pride of place at the top of the newshour—Cook is working at a whisper. His focus is acute. His concentration is Vulcan. This is fine. But viewers need to see more to know whether Cook can channel these efforts into a full roar.

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