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Thirty for America 

Art of the new world at the Arts Center.

'CLASS OF 2007': Chicago Nina Chanel Abney's work in the "30 Americans" show at the Arkansas Arts Center image
  • 'CLASS OF 2007': Chicago Nina Chanel Abney's work in the "30 Americans" show at the Arkansas Arts Center.

Glenn Ligon's blinking black-and-white neon sign, in the Jeannette Rockefeller Gallery at the Arkansas Arts Center, spells "America," and so does this terrific exhibition of work by contemporary African-American artists now on view.

The painters, videographers, sculptors, photographers and mixed media artists whose work makes up the "30 Americans" show use their medium to reflect on the black experience in a white-dominated America, from the literal (Ku Klux Klan masks surrounding a noose) — to the literary (Kara Walker's silhouetted telling of "Camptown Ladies," which spans an entire wall of the Rockefeller Gallery). Using the past to celebrate the present, Kehinde Wiley appropriates the pomp and power of European nobility by replacing their heroic portraits with figures of African-American men. His "Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares," a man in a red hoodie and sneakers atop a rearing white horse, is so tall the Arts Center should consider putting a ladder in the gallery so we might get a good look at the duke's face and more of Wiley's impossibly meticulous backgrounds of tapestry patterns.

There are fascinating histories behind some of the works. For her painting "Class of 2007," Nina Chanel Abney painted her all-white art school colleagues as black inmates and herself as a blonde, blue-eyed, gun-toting prison guard. She's applied aqua and orange paint so thin it drips over her deft renditions of her classmates, whom she's given flat, jet-black pupils that admit no light. Hank Willis Thomas' "Priceless" plays off the Mastercard ad campaign, superimposing over a photograph of a family at a funeral "9mm pistol: $80," "gold chain: $400," "bullet: 6 cents," "Picking the perfect casket for your son: Priceless." Thomas took the photograph at the funeral of his own cousin, shot to death in a petty robbery.

The late Robert Colescott's painterly "Sunset on the Bayou" is a complicated and cartoonish outsider work that is so rich in imagery that looking at it is like reading a good, long book you don't want to end. In the foreground a grown white woman in red heels lies across the lap of her half-ink black, half-stark white mother and asks in a word balloon, "Mama! How come I'm a quadroon when papa was an octaroon?" In one corner, two white men exchange gold for the Louisiana Purchase; in another is Jim Crow. I'm not even sure the story it tells has a beginning, a middle and an end, but I could have looked at the painting forever.

The show is drawn from the collection of the Rubell family in Miami that has been traveling the country. Darrell Walker, the former Razorback basketball star who went on to the NBA and who has a significant collection of African-American art himself, knows the Rubells and asked Arts Center director Todd Herman if he'd like the show to stop in Arkansas. Herman gave an emphatic "absolutely." "30 Americans" is a vast exhibition; only a part of it is at the Arts Center, though the part that is here takes up most of the galleries. Other works: a painting and a mixed-media work by the late street artist Jean Michel Basquiat; a Kerry James Marshall installation on the firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that suggests the media makes such things removed and palatable; the beautifully painted "Noir," in which Barkley L. Hendricks portrays his stylish man against a flat yellow background; "Untitled (after Kikugawa Eizan's "Furyu nana komachi" [The Modern Seven Komashi])" depicting a Japanese woman in blackface, by Iona Rozeal Brown; Nick Cave soundsuits (minus one, apparently — more title cards than suits) that would have been great paired with video to show how they move when people are dancing in them. Also: Jeff Sonhouse's gorgeous and weird mixed media on wood "Exhibit A: Cardinal Francis Arinze," of the Nigerian papal candidate, adorned with a charcoal necklace. And if you want bittersweet joy, see Henry Taylor's "The Long Jump by Carl Lewis," a portrait of the track-and-field star running toward the viewer and away from a prison in the background.

"30 Americans" runs through June 21. Each Friday at noon, an Arkansas artist will talk about the exhibition for the "American Voices in the Gallery" series; Delita Martin is speaking April 17. Other events associated with the show can be found online at arkansasartscenter.org.

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