Going All Out: Kara Walker and Ruffneck Constructivists

Robert and I are standing by the elevator when one of the interns stops to talk about the baloney wall.

“Baloney wall?” I ask.

“I’ll show you,” Robert says. We take the elevator down to ICA’s first floor galleries, where Pat, a member of the installation crew, is painting the top half of an enormous wall I’ve never seen before; the crew built it specially for this show since the last time I was down here. But there’s no baloney yet, just a blank expanse that Pat is painting orange to get ready for William Pope.L, the artist whose project this is. In a day or two,when Pope.L gets here, he’ll start adhering hundreds of photographs to hundreds of pieces of baloney, and the crew will hang them in a grid on the wall.
Pat painting

Pat painting

We head to the back of the gallery where, in opposite quadrants, two rough wooden structures are going up. Robert stops to consult with Paul, who is overseeing the installation. “The fans came in,” Robert says.“And I got the push pins. I hope they’re the right kind. Also, I told Dineo I bought a multi-format DVD player.”

I know that Dineo is Dineo Bopape, another artist in the show, but I don’t know what the fans or push pins are for. I don’t ask.Everyone’s busy, and besides, I’ll find out soon enough.

Sophie and Jake working on Dineo’s piece

Eleven artists have work in this show, Ruffneck Constructivists, which is being guest-curated by artist Kara Walker. A few days from now, walking through the nearly completed installation with the Penn graduate students who will give tours to the public, Kara will explain, “I had this title that formed itself around an idea, which was Ruffneck, and I started to wonder about what that meant.” Having agreed to do an exhibition here at ICA, she started thinking about artists who “make work that’s…hardcore is the non-artistic word for it. Work that really goes all out. I decided I’d let MC Lyte define ruffneck for me: both a love interest and a bad boy. Black, male. Doesn’t give a fuck,sits on the corner. He’s sexual, and anti-social.”

In her 1993 song, “Ruffneck,” which was a big part of Kara’s inspiration for the show, MC Lyte sings:

I need a ruffneck
I need a dude with attitude

Triple O baldie under the hood
Makin’ noise with the boys up to no good

Gotta what yo, gotta get a ruffneck
Gotta what yo, gotta get a ruffneck

Most of the other lyrics are more (to use Kara’s word) hardcore.

Architecture is an important theme in the show too. Kara talks to the students about what she calls fugitive spaces: “Clandestine, illegal. Perhaps immoral. Violent.” She mentions Michael Vick’s dog compound, drug smuggling tunnels, the apartment in New York that a man raised a tiger in. If Russian Contructivism—an early twentieth century artistic and architectural movement—sought to impose a kind of white, European, aggressively sleek male aesthetic on the world, what might a differently aggressive—black, American, hip hop—Ruffneck Constructivism look like? That was what she hoped these artists (who are not all black, or male, or American,though many are) would help her discover.

As always during an ICA installation, a couple of days make a huge difference. Today, not long after I first came down here with Robert,the two rough structures in the back of the gallery have been finished. The one on the left, by Israeli artist Lior Shvil, looks—with its white and pale blue paint, its bolted boat ladder, and nice square windows—sturdy and tidy. “A vessel that’s part ship, part military training vehicle,” Kara says. (A few days from now, at the opening, Lior will show up all in black and breech his own vessel, bashing in the windows and rappelling down the side.)

Lior’s vessel

Dineo’s structure, in the other corner, is more delicate: almost improvisatory. The table fans Robert bought blow across it from different directions, making bits of hanging white cloth flutter and tremble. Mirrors,bolted to posts or dangling, hold fragments of the installation inside their silvery surfaces, while video projectors send images of flames dancing across the blowing cloth.

“The perspective keeps shifting,” Dineo explains. “It tries to reflect itself from within.”

“It’s like it’s dreaming itself,” Kara says.

Turning the corner, we come around to the baloney wall, now nearly complete. 668 slices are arranged in a towering grid, each one push-pinned into place with a small photograph glued to its middle. Kara tells us about discussing with Anthony Elms, ICA’s receiving curator for the show, Pope.L’s decision to use baloney as a material in this piece, and how Anthony told her that—because it had so many preservatives—it would be fine. “It sweats and then it desiccates,” Anthony explains to the group. “And then it’s just dry.”

Kara is looking up at the wall: the pink, sweating baloney slices with black-and-white photos of people glued to their centers. Faces, some barely legible, spread out in every direction in neat rows, each one anchored to the wall with a dully glinting metal push pin. “I can’t help but read more violence into it,” she says. “They’re like lost person photos.”
Kara in front of wall

Kara in front of wall

The students ask questions, mostly about the concept of the show, which hovers in the air: present, potent, but not quite graspable. It’s almost time for us to clear out so the crew can finish its work. But for a last moment we linger in the space while Kara explains that, as curator, she didn’t want to be too directive.

“Toward the end I was worried all of a sudden that I’d created a narrative,” she says. “What I was trying to create was something more abstract. An evocation, a proposal. A set of possibilities.”

-Rachel Pastan

Ruffneck Constructivists is on view at ICA through August 17.

To stay up to date with all ICA’s evocations, email miranda@icaphila.org.