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Cultural Capital

Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys Invite Brooklyn In. So Where’s the Show?

In "Giants," the couple's exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, diverse works are suffocated by a vague narrative of Black excellence.

Portraits of Alicia Keys and Swizz Beats by Kehinde Wiley, commissioned for “Giants.” (Hell Gate)

Another day, another vulgar superimposition by a celebrity onto Black history, sponsored by Brooklyn's cultural institutions. But "Giants," the Brooklyn Museum exhibition of the collection of married musicians Alicia Keys and Kasseem "Swizz Beats" Dean, is not nearly as egregious as "Spike Lee: Creative Sources." There's a slow evolution here: The organizing principle is no longer as much about the personal collection of the star, and more about the integrity of the work.

The curators, this time, relegated the personal effects and commissioned self portraits, most notably colossal Kehinde Wileys, to the margins of the show. Against the maximal florals in Dean's portrait (his second by Wiley), you can just make out the faint Louis Vuitton checking on Dean's Virgil Abloh-designed Nike Air Force 1s—market value $11,000. The paintings serve as a glorified Instagram wall—there's nothing between them, they beckon visitors to pose in the gap. But thankfully these enshrinements are limited to this very entrance to the exhibit, and a small nook in the middle. In that nook, you can sit on a sleek couch and watch a video interview with the Deans, along with an issue of Architectural Digest they're on the cover of, which is hilariously surrounded by a glass case.

In the video, the Deans sit before a wall of glass overlooking an ocean and palm trees. They're asked how they go about collecting the work that they're exhibiting here. "A gut intuitive perspective," Alicia Keys says, then turns to her husband. "I don't know how he does it. He has a knack for this thing." Swizz Beatz expounds: "My strategy is coming from the heart." The closest thing to a true collecting ethos to frame the exhibit the Deans give is that they'd collect as stewards for their community, saying "we don’t feel like we own any artwork." When they purchase an artist's work, they say, they're telling them "welcome to the family." "We make sure the artists know that they're family to us," Keys says.

(Hell Gate)

That might be commendable if they were uplifting emerging voices, but everything in "Giants" is from established and famous artists. In fact, you leave the show no more clear on what the Deans's collecting impulse is, other than that they simply like the most expensive stuff. On a pillar near the beginning is a small portrait photograph by the late Malian photographer Malick Sidibe, paired with a plaque that explains the significance of his work in photographing candid shots of joyous revelry, a theme that is, of course, completely absent.

The themes here are as vague and unsatisfactory as the preceding exhibits in this style—the same gestures towards the civil rights era, the same perfunctory nods towards the Black Lives Matter movement, and the same ultimate insistence on wealth and contemporary pop success as the apotheosis of the struggle for Black liberation.

Under this suffocating context, for example, Odili Donald Odita's color study "Place," therefore, must become "a vehicle of change" when next to Hank Willis Thomas's "You Shouldn't Be the Prisoner of Your Own Ideas," a trompe l'oeil constructed of aqua and white striped prison uniforms that actually engages with the themes the famous couple seek to use to frame their collection. But really, they're probably next to each other because they're both large abstracts.

The centerpiece of "Giants" is Meleko Mokgosi’s massive, muralistic "Bread, Butter, and Power," a 20-panel continuum of text, blank space, and tender scenes rendered in big, scratchy brush strokes. But even though "Bread, Butter, and Power" is displayed in all its glory, and so are several prints from the iconic civil rights photographer Gordon Parks, the meaning is sapped from both when they're forced to be in conversation with each other by the arbitrary whims of their owners.

(Hell Gate)

In a profile in the New York Times, the Deans let a photographer capture the chic of their San Diego home, where the interview took place. You can see Derrick Adams's "Floater 74" behind their dining table, its neon pastels playing off the greenery of the houseplants that punctuate their furniture. It's quite like "Giants," aesthetically. Or really, "Giants" seems more like an extension of their living room. Between the paintings, sculptures, and tasteful mid-century seating set up in various stations for visitors to rest on, are speakers by the Danish company Bang & Olufsen, pumping in emancipatory anthems from the '60s and '70s. As advertisements go, they're not the most garish anyone's ever seen, these little salons. In the Times piece, the Museum's director, Anne Pasternak, indicated that she values the success of these pop-cultural exhibits over the complaints of critics—and a Paul McCartney show is next. In the end, "Giants" rectifies some of the vacuousness of "Creative Sources," but only by degree. It's nice to buy great art, and even to furnish your living room with nice, expensive things. But if you're going to keep inviting all of Brooklyn into it, the cool stuff you own won't cut it. You owe them an actual art show.

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