“Beth Consetta Rubel: Higher Learning: Educational Toys”

Rubel's solo show is cutting when it comes to Bill Cosby and Rachel Dolezal, but it also explores the complexities of race

Race in America is both hard and soft. Sometimes we want it diluted to nonexistence. Other times we want it solid and unavoidable. Is it a social construct or a legitimate distinction? That ambivalence is central to Beth Consetta Rubel's "Higher Learning: Educational Toys." A series of colored pencil portraits features influential African-Americans including Hattie McDaniel, Prince, Snoop Dogg, and President Obama. Each of the portraits is made on a brown paper bag, suggesting the fragility of paper, the temporality of trash, and the mundanity of low-end consumerism. It is a poignant choice when dealing with such powerful personalities. Obama's mouth is agape, sucking on a giant pink ice cream scoop. This, along with Rubel's fluid, illustrative drawing style, make it a personable caricature, an effect emphasized by the texture of the bag, most notable in the seam that bisects Obama's face. The seam echoes the crack in the famous daguerreotype of a smiling Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War. It is a satisfying connection to make between two presidents whose legacies run so historically parallel to one another.

A few steps away, an entire wall re-creates a typical living room, complete with wallpaper and a potted plant. A large box TV sits on a gray dresser. Onscreen is the familiar Cosby family living room, along with Bill Cosby himself. He sits in an easy chair with Rudy on his lap, reading to her from a copy of his book, Fatherhood, as a toppling bottle spills a cascade of colorful pills. Just behind Cosby are his TV wife, Clair Huxtable; his real wife, Camille, clutching a prescription bag and smiling broadly; Damon Wayans, who described Cosby's victims as "un-rape-able"; and Whoopi Goldberg, who vigorously defended Cosby from rape allegations. Even Woody Allen and Bill O'Reilly make sly appearances. Cosby flashes his famous coy eye roll, as though his waterfall of inebriates is only a naughty joke. The figures have the same caricature loudness that the paper bag portraits do, which lends the collage a darkly humorous edge. To top it off, the collage has been automated so that some features, notably the book and the pills, slowly rise and fall. If the subject were not so ugly, it would be charming.

Rubel is not sympathetic to Cosby, any more than she is to Rachel Dolezal, the woman who a couple of years ago admitted that, despite the fact that she had been presenting herself as black, she had actually been born to a white family. As with Cosby, a wall of the gallery is dedicated to what Rubel calls the Dolezally Dolly, a doll that can be reversed into the white version of Dolezal, or the black version. Rubel has designed mock packaging for the doll and accessories (Soul Glow, etc.). While the installation is ruthlessly sarcastic, an accompanying video, in which children play with the doll while being asked questions about what "trans black" is, allows room for nuance. One little girl, who happens to be African-American, says she has no problem with Dolezal, as long as Dolezal feels like she is being herself.

Rubel has a razor for antagonists like Cosby and Dolezal, but she seems less angry than sad for the proud history of blackness in America. It is a history which many times has been brought low by the pitfalls of human frailty, political greed, and the complexities of race – an idea none of us truly comprehends, but which we so often approach with an unyielding, dangerous conviction.

“Beth Consetta Rubel: Higher Learning: Educational Toys”

George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina
Through June 24

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