Perhaps the pure white walls had something to do with the naming of Blanc Gallery. This much white could be overwhelmingly sterile, but in “Dreams in Jay-Z Minor,” it acts as a contrast to the powerful works of Amanda Williams and Krista Franklin.
The name of the exhibit comes from a time when Williams and Franklin were both having recurring dreams that featured rapper Jay-Z. But the exhibit is far from a shallow homage to a pop culture icon. Take the title, for instance: in an interview with WCIU-TV, Williams explained that the reference to the minor key is a nod to the fact that “there was a period of time in history when women weren’t allowed to listen to music in the minor key because it was thought to make them hysterical or crazy.” Exploring historical interplay of masculinity, political power, and wealth, the two assert that “women have a right to use men as a muse,” according to Williams. At the same time, the artistic duo is interested more broadly in “Black opulence, Black excellence and excess,” as they state in the exhibit catalog. Like the title of the show, each piece initially grabs your attention with glitz and glamour, but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that there’s more to the exhibit beneath the gold leaf and rhinestones.
Williams grew up on the South Side, attending the University of Chicago’s Lab School before going to Cornell to study art. Her work for this exhibit explores her personal relationship with wealth. There are checks coated in gold leaf, fifty dollar bills that stare out from a woodblock canvas, and tongue-in-cheek titles like “I Been Spendin’ Hunneds Since They Had Small Faces” that ring with the rhythm of Jay-Z’s flawless bars. In other works she excerpts everything from the Bible to rap songs. Phrases like “What’s a God? …Who don’t believe in anything?” scrawled across a red canvas titled “No Church in the Wild” simultaneously refer to the Jay-Z song of the same name while raising questions about the role of religion and contemporary opinions on it. William’s recurring use of gold leaf, currency, and rap lyrics demonstrates the obsessive desire for material success sought out by so many people in today’s gluttonous society.
Franklin, who writes poetry and works in collage and sculpture, takes a different approach. Her work explores and encases the material objects of our world and her skill lies in alteration and adaptation, making the everyday objects new and mysterious. In particular, she seems to probe “the vestiges of Black power,” as the exhibit catalog puts it. For example, one piece on display features an afro pick pressed between handmade papers. On the far end of the gallery, what appears to be a watercolor of a brown squid turns out to be tendrils of fake hair trapped under raw paper fibers titled “That’s My B.” Textures abound in every piece: a chair covered entirely in white wax is sprinkled with cowrie shells, which were once widely used in African countries as currency. Franklin uses text as well—the image of a busted cassette tape is printed above the rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s lyrics “I let my tape rock/ ‘til my tape popped.” The pages of Machiavelli’s The Prince have been repurposed by Franklin as the text “Notorious BIG, Ten Crack Commandments,” the new letters punched out of the old book’s pages.
Unfortunately, the exhibit seems to dwell on the masculine elements of power and wealth without any direct critical commentary from the female artists themselves. Almost all the quotes are from the Bible or male rappers and the checks used in one of Williams’ pieces come from the desk of her father and are not her own. The idea of femininity is suggested in the use of long strands of fake hair in one piece, but otherwise seems to play less of a role in the exhibit than promised.
As a whole, however, the exhibit strikes a laudable balance between the everyday and the fantastical. It’s showy without being pretentious, and whip-smart without being condescending. Like the namesake’s rhymes, each piece can stand alone, but together they flow seamlessly within the larger narrative.
Blanc Gallery, 4445 S. Martin Luther King Dr. Through December 29. Wednesday-Friday, 11am–3pm; Saturday, Noon–5pm. Free. (773)952-4394. blancchicago.com