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Identity Crisis

Charles McGill's art carries a whole lot of “Baggage.”

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"I like to work from extremes — and a black militant and a country club are two extremes,” says New York-based artist and illustrator Charles McGill, talking about his conceptual invention of what he calls the Former Black Militant Golf and Country Club.

A connection with golf began to creep into McGill's creations after he picked up the game. He saw the action of playing golf itself as creative. What began with a single object, Club Negro — an old, persimmon head golf club to which a lock of McGill's dreadlocks was glued — evolved into an entire concept based upon the same name. Club Negro is a studied observation of a shifting time, “an illusory state of leisure shielded by denial, wealth and celebrity.”

The sole founding member and pioneer of Club Negro, Arthur Negro, otherwise known as black art, is retired from day-to-day activism. The life of Arthur Negro is detailed in one of the many writings on McGill's Web site, Artnegro.com. The satirical manifesto of this imaginary figure is just the beginning of McGill's extensive study of identity. Much of McGill's work cleverly uses golf as a metaphor for the notion of black art as a movement and the identities it invokes for its creators and viewers. Of his concept, McGill says, “Over the past 40 years we [black Americans] have acquired the unenviable characteristic of a race-based paranoia that cannot distinguish between the real and imagined racism.”

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His show, “Baggage,” at Russell Projects, “tries to explore the tensions and expectations that can exist between personal, cultural and ethnic aspects of identity,” he says. The use of 18 golf bags as found objects and the collaged images he applies to them are the core of his new show. McGill uses the Internet as a palette using search engines as the source for random found objects.

“The images I come up with — I never would have even imagined that some of the images existed ever in the history of humankind. Especially a lot of the minstrel type imagery and the old advertising,” he says. “The Internet has kind of revealed an aspect of American history that America does try to kind of repress, like we don't want to remember that we are this vicious toward black people.”

These images applied to the golf bags aren't offered as truths in McGill's work. They're evidence of misinterpretations perpetuated through time.

“So the work is always exploring what is my personal acceptance of identity, what is my ethnic obligation to identity, and what are my cultural expectations of my identity,” he says. “So it seems as though this is very complex because it is like black people are expected to know, do, and act certain ways based on their cultural identity as opposed to a personal identity where they say, ‘that is not me at all, nothing can be further from the truth.'”

McGill's use of such charged imagery isn't even a notion of race itself, but more of the questioned existence of race. He's the son of a white mother and a black father, and says he experiences outside sympathies and empathies for both of his identified races.

“Therefore I think you have that little chasm in between where you exist and that is kind of where my work tries to stay,” he says. “It tries to stay in that little chasm in-between that is neither white nor black and isn't even a mixture of the two. It just is the identity. It is the area that claims the right to create identity and not acquire or accept that which other people have prescribed.”

Charles Magill: “Baggage” is on display until April 18 at Russell Projects at 320 Hull St. For information call 901-0284 or visit russellprojects.com.

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