Art museums are often dismissed as highbrow bastions reflecting the tastes of the wealthy patrons who fund their coffers. Occasionally, however, public and educational institutions make special attempts to connect with the masses through presentations more likely to resonate with a wider collection of people.

In the case of two recent exhibition openings, “Posing Beauty in African American Culture,” at USC’s Fisher Museum of Art and “Five Car Stud” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), graphic representation is used to provide commentary on social issues such as race and intolerance.

“Posing Beauty” originated when curator Deborah Willis decided to address the absence of positive African American images in the media and popular culture in general. The physical collection of the images was a logical extension of a thought process that began in her youth, as she elaborates below:
“I am not sure when this project began, but I do remember that as a child I had extended thoughts on the myths about beauty, sparked both by role-playing with dolls and watching the transformation women experienced in my mother’s beauty shop in our home in North Philadelphia.”

Central to this void is the fact that people of color do not naturally conform to the Euro-centric aesthetic that dominates Western culture.

The photographers and image makers Willis chose share a commonality in terms of their approach, she believes. Expanding on this idea, she states: “They’re asking us to think more critically about the notion of beauty and to think about the consequences of the decisions we make about beauty and how this discussion was ignored in the larger culture from the early negative stereotypes of Black Americans in photography.”

Willis, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award, a Guggenheim fellow, and the current chair of photography and imaging at New York University, assembled more than 80 images from the 1890s on. During the course of more than a decade of research, she compiled materials featuring noted celebrities along with common folk interacting at barbershops, beauty pageants, proms and other staples of community life.

Referencing her democratic approach in selecting images to be shown, she said, “I found it important to add not only famous or well-known photographic images but also to include family images of everyday life.”

The culmination of resources from such a vast segment of society results in commentary on aesthetics, class and politics.

In tandem with the exhibition, Willis will moderate a panel discussion on beauty and the African Diaspora at the Fisher on Oct. 4 at 5 p.m. Other related events include talks on The Image of Masculinity on Oct. 19, and Contesting Beauty (on the impact of African American beauty pageants) on Nov. 9, both at 5 p.m.
For additional information, call (213) 740-4561.

It is perhaps fitting that Edward Kienholz’s “Five Car Stud” comes to LACMA, since this institution launched his career in 1964 with “Back Seat Dodge ’38,” the artist’s most recognizable work. Like most of the pieces conceived during Kienholz’s career, this “tableau,” or graphic representation (consisting of life-size plaster figures of a couple locked in a carnal embrace in the back seat of a car), generated controversy when the County Board of Supervisors deemed it pornography, attempted to shut the exhibit down and halt arts financing to the museum on that basis.

In contrast to the plethora of images on display at USC’s Fisher Museum, the installation “Five Car Stud,” is a single and–depending on one’s point of view–repulsive presentation set in a 7,500-square-foot exhibition hall at LACMA.

The viewer walks into a wooded area in which four life-size mannequins (again cast in plaster) are in the process of castrating a Black man spread eagle on the ground, his torso comprised of a water-filled pan in which six floating toy alphabet blocks spell out the epithet “Nigger.”

Four cars surround this grisly scenario, their headlights illuminating the events; evidently they have come across an interracial couple during a romantic tryst, with the victim’s paramour isolated in a pickup truck guarded by a fifth member brandishing a shotgun while his cohorts complete their grim task.

Nearly 40 years have passed since its solitary showing, but the scenario it depicts remains unsettling, because it evokes an era when lynching was a common practice in various parts of our country.

Perhaps the best assessment of this work may come from Kienholz (who died in 1994) himself. Upon its completion in 1972, he reflected “the conversation with Five Car Stud is still very painful and slow, but one thing has been established for sure: if 6 to 1 is unfair odds in my tableau, then 170 million to 20 million is sure as hell unfair odds in my country.”

LACMA sponsored events involving art historians and social scientists related to the Kienholz exhibit include the discussion “Representing Racial Violence: A Short History,” tonight at 7:30 p.m., “Artists Discuss Kienholz Then and Now,” on Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m. (features Alonzo Davis), and the lecture by Ken Gonzales-Day “Profiled: Race and Whiteness in Sculpture from Frederick the Great to Ed Kienholz,” on Oct. 23 at 2 p.m.

“Posing Beauty in African American Culture” is on display until Dec. 3 at the Fisher Museum of Art on the University Park Campus, while “Five Car Stud” will be on view until Jan. 15, 2012 at LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. (Parental warning: the LACMA showing contains images of extreme violence and nudity.)