Community Action Center,” a 69-minute erotic romp through the imaginations of artists A.K. Burns (b. Capitola, Calif., 1975) and A.L. Steiner (b. Miami, 1967) and their community of friends, is a celebration of queer sexuality as playful as it is political. We watch as a diverse, multigenerational cast engage in joyfully hedonistic acts of private and shared pleasure involving paint, egg yolks, carwashes and corn on the cob. Although the video opens with the cabaret star Justin Vivian Bond reading lines from Jack Smith’s experimental film “Normal Love,” there is otherwise little dialogue. Instead, the focus is on the dreamlike visuals — captured with an offhand intimacy on rented and borrowed cameras — and the visceral sensations they evoke. “Community Action Center” is the rare ribald work that doesn’t refer to male desire or gratification, which is partly why Steiner and Burns, who are activists as well as artists, describe it as “socio-sexual.” Radical politics needn’t come at the cost of sensuality, however. The piece is meant to titillate.

KT: It’s a really important work, too.

TLF: I haven’t seen it.

KT: They spearheaded this project to essentially make porn, but it’s much more than that, with all kinds of people from their queer community. It includes so many artists that we know and that are making work now, and very visible, but it was all about figuring out how to show their body, show their sexuality, share their body, share their sexuality, make light of it, make it serious, collaborate with musicians. It’s a crazy document of a moment that opened up a conversation.

Photo by Nils Klinger, taken at Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany

Danh Vo (b. Vietnam, 1975) immigrated to Denmark with his family after the fall of Saigon in 1979. “We the People,” a full-size copper replica of the Statue of Liberty, may be his most ambitious work. Fabricated in Shanghai, the colossal figure exists in roughly 250 pieces, dispersed throughout public and private collections around the world. It will never be assembled or exhibited as a whole. In its fragmented state, Vo’s statue alludes to the hypocrisy and contradictions of Western foreign policy. A gift from France to the United States, dedicated in 1886, the original monument was billed as a celebration of freedom and democracy — values both nations proved willing to overlook when dealing with other countries. At the time of the dedication, France possessed colonies in Africa and Asia, including Vietnam, where a miniature version of the statue was installed on the roof of the Tháp Rùa temple (or Turtle Tower) in Hanoi. Later, the United States financially supported the French military in Vo’s home country, waging war in the name of protecting democracy from Communism. By then, of course, the Statue of Liberty had welcomed millions of immigrants to the United States and had become a symbol of the American dream. In the wake of current violent crackdowns on immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, Vo’s fragmented icon has never felt more darkly apropos.

DB: I chose this because it totally takes away the masterpiece idea. It’s the one statue, with many meanings embedded within it, but totally distributed. The sections are made in China, right?

RT: Yes.

DB: So it’s also the idea that this object, which is synonymous with the United States, is now made in what will be the superpower of the future. It’s signaling what other futures will be, and it gets back to this idea that “contemporary” is a total unknowingness. We don’t know what the hell the “contemporary” is, and I think in some ways, these works affirm that that unknowingness is where we begin.

KT: That work had so much violence and anger in it. Anger is a big part of the work that’s being made by artists now — everyone’s feeling it — specifically the anger of a displaced person. This idea of what we’ve done as a country, all over the world.

Photo by Jason Wyche © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., N.Y.

Ever since 1994, when the 24-year-old Kara Walker (b. Stockton, Calif., 1969) first astounded audiences with cut-paper installations depicting plantation barbarism, she has plumbed this country’s long history of racial violence. In 2014, Walker created “A Subtlety,” a monumental polystyrene sphinx coated in white sugar. The piece dominated an enormous hall of the Domino Sugar refinery in Brooklyn, shortly before much of the factory was demolished for condominiums. In a reversal of her black-paper silhouettes of white slave owners, Walker gave the colossal white sculpture the features of a stereotypical black “mammy” in a kerchief, the sort of imagery used by molasses brands to market their product. Walker’s sphinx also conjures up forced labor in ancient Egypt. “In my own life, in my own way of moving through the world, I have a hard time making a distinction between the past and the present,” she has said. “Everything is kind of hitting me all at once.”

MR: “A Subtlety” made lots of people furious because it was about the history of labor and sugar in a place that was already about to be gentrified. It was this gigantic, mammy-like, sphinxlike, female object, and then it had all these little melting children. “A Subtlety” is part of a very longstanding tradition that began in the Arab world that had to do with creating objects out of clay but also out of sugar. So it’s the impacted value of extractive mining, but it’s also the impacted value of the labor of slaves. And it’s also on the site where wage slavery had occurred — sugar work was the worst. The Domino Sugar factory was once owned by the Havemeyers, and Henry Havemeyer was one of the main donors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sugar king was the art king. So it had all of these things — and then there’s the idea of all these people taking selfies in front of it. It was extremely brilliant without having to say a thing.

Left: courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, N.Y. Right: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

TLF: Martha, you wrote to me in an email that you are against the idea of the game-changing masterpiece. I thought we should put that on the record.

MR: I’m happy to say that it makes no sense in a contemporary era to talk about a work in isolation, because as soon as a work is noticed, everybody then notices what the person did before or who was around them. Art is not made in isolation. This brings me to the “genius”: The masterwork and the genius go together. That was one of the first things women artists attacked. As much as we revere the work of Mike Kelley, he always said that everything he did depended on what the feminists in L.A. had done before. What he meant by that, I believe, was that abjection and pain and abuse are things that are worth paying attention to in art. And that was something no man would have done at that point, except Paul McCarthy, maybe. The masterpiece idea is highly reductive.

KT: This brings up a good point about how there’s a responsibility to question this. Is that how it’s going to be?

TT: No, but listing a work that “defines the contemporary age” doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a masterwork.

MR: Well, it could be a bad masterwork. You could say Dana Schutz [the painter of a controversial 2016 work based on a photograph of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, lynched, in his coffin]. But the questions of ownership go back to Sherrie Levine and the Walker Evans work. What’s ownership of an image? What’s reproduction of a photo? The culture wars of the ’80s all depended on photographs, whether it was “Piss Christ” or Robert Mapplethorpe’s work — and we’re still fighting these things. We don’t want to talk about them. Nobody here named Mapplethorpe — interesting.

KT: Thought about it.

MR: Nobody mentioned William Eggleston because we really hate photography in the art world. Nobody named Susan Meiselas. We always want photography to be something else, which is art, which is actually what you said about Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills.” We know it’s not really photography. I’m always interested in the way art is always ready to kick photography out of the room unless called upon to say, “Yeah but this was really important for identity, formation or recognition.” It’s always thematic. It’s never formal.

Courtesy of Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne

Birth is the subject of “Baby,” seven photographs by Heji Shin (b. Seoul, South Korea, 1976) that capture the moments after crowning. Shin illuminates some of the undeniably gory scenes with a scorching red light. Other pictures are barely lit at all, and the puckered faces of the almost-born emerge from menacing black shadows. While these photographs might remind us of our common humanity, they are hardly sentimental or celebratory — several are downright scary. This complexity is at the core of Shin’s practice, from pornographic photographs of chiseled men dressed as beefcake cops to colossal portraits of Kanye West that debuted shortly after the rapper’s inflammatory conversation with Donald Trump. (Two Kanye portraits and five of the “Babies” were in the 2019 Whitney Biennial.) At a time when political art is everywhere, with young artists telling predictably left-leaning audiences exactly what they want to hear, Shin is an outlier. Her photographs do not answer any questions. Instead, they ask a lot of their audiences.

TT: I was obsessed with the “Baby” photos. I mean, I wanted one myself. But then my partner was like, “Well what’s the … ” Like, “I’ve seen pregnancy, what’s the difference?”

KT: “A kid could do that?”

TT: Or not quite that, but: I understand it aesthetically and I’m interested in the photo, but what’s it saying and what’s it doing?

KT: No one wants to look at that work. No one wants to look at that act. No one wants to talk about motherhood. No one wants to look at women like that. No one wants to see a vagina like that. No one wants to see a human being that looks like that. I think there’s something gross and revolting and very brave about that work.

Cameron Rowland, “New York State Unified Court System,” 2016, oak wood, distributed by Corcraft, 165 x 57.5 x 36 inches, rental at cost. “Courtrooms throughout New York State use benches built by prisoners in Green Haven Correctional Facility. The court reproduces itself materially through the labor of those it sentences. Rental at cost: Artworks indicated as ‘Rental at cost’ are not sold. Each of these artworks may be rented for 5 years for the total price realized at police auction.” Courtesy of the artist and Essex Street, N.Y.

In a much-discussed 2016 exhibition titled “91020000” at the New York nonprofit Artists Space, Cameron Rowland (b. Philadelphia, 1988) exhibited furniture and other objects fabricated by inmates often working for less than a dollar an hour, as well as heavily footnoted research on the mechanics of mass incarceration. The New York State Department of Corrections sells these commodities under the brand name Corcraft to government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Artists Space was eligible to acquire the benches, manhole cover rings, firefighter uniforms, metal bars and other objects comprising the exhibition, which Rowland rents to collectors and museums instead of selling them. The spare installation recalled those of the Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, while Rowland’s politically driven approach to Conceptualism and focus on racial injustice garnered comparisons to Kara Walker and the American light and text artist Glenn Ligon. The New Yorker traced Rowland’s artistic ancestry back to “Duchamp, by way of Angela Davis.”

TT: Cameron Rowland’s work is further out on the edges of what’s considered art. You apply to get a catalog in order to purchase prison goods. A lot of the work he makes, I don’t even understand how. I still have a lot of questions, and we’re friends. There’s this unraveling of a new sort of sideways information that I find really interesting and confusing at the same time.

At a moment when the volume of images — from pictures of suffering to bathroom selfies — threatens to preclude empathy, Arthur Jafa’s seven-and-a-half-minute video, “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death,” is a profoundly moving antidote to indifference. Through film clips, TV broadcasts, music videos and personal footage, Jafa (b. Tupelo, Miss., 1960) portrays the triumphs and terrors of black life in America. We see the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Miles Davis; Cam Newton racing to score a touchdown; a Texas police officer slamming a teenage girl onto the ground; Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the Charleston church where nine people were murdered by a white supremacist; and Jafa’s daughter on her wedding day. The film made its official art-world debut at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in Harlem just days after Donald Trump won the presidential election in November 2016. Jafa set the images to Kanye West’s gospel-inflected anthem “Ultralight Beam.”

TLF: Jafa strikes me as more popular, in a sense, if I can use that word. He crosses over into other worlds.

TT: This goes back to David Hammons because — I threw away my [Adidas Yeezy] sneakers Kanye made. [West alienated many of his fans when he made a visit to the White House in October 2018, offering his verbal support of President Trump and wearing a Make America Great Again baseball cap.]

KT: How do you justify that work, then? You still put Arthur Jafa on the list, which is what I’m really curious about.

TT: Because it’s not my list. In my head, I thought, “This is contemporary.” And I think that a good artwork can be problematic. Art is one of the few things that can transcend or complicate a problem. “Love Is the Message” can still be a very good artwork and I can disagree with Arthur Jafa’s approach to it. No one else has done that. No one else in history has produced a video like that. It’s still moving things forward, even if they’re moving back a little bit.

DB: I think Arthur Jafa is coming out of a lineage of collage and photomontage artists — from Martha Rosler, sitting right here, to early artists coming out of the Russian avant-garde — this idea that you don’t have to agree or adhere to a singular point of view. Each image or piece of music doesn’t mean something on its own; it’s in the juxtaposition where meaning comes together. What’s so interesting about the piece is how seductive it can be, and also, in some ways, it begs for us to resist that seductive quality because of the violence of some of the imagery.

Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York/Rome

MR: I am surprised not to see LaToya on this list. Maybe she’s too young?

TLF: Why don’t you state the case for why you’d like to see her?

MR: Because she’s not only a sharp, clear and intelligent observer of black life but specifically of female-centered, working-class, black life in a small city in the Rust Belt. Most of the African-American artists we think about deal with urban-centered questions and relationships. But she knows how to put together activism with social critique in a way that many other people have been afraid to deal with — not just with black identity but also class identity. She documented the closure of the hospital in Braddock, Pa., and called attention to the fact that the residents’ physical conditions resulted from living in a town polluted by industry and waste dumping. I think she’s pushed the boundaries of photography in the art world.