Sunday, February 20, 2011

Abstract art in Baton Rouge, LA

Baton Rouge this week-end?

The LSU Museum of Art presents three abstract artists, from African-American descent, John T. Scott, Eugene Martin and Edward Clark. It is a great occasion to visit the Shaw Center for the Arts, a sober six-storied building located along the Mississippi river, downtown Baton Rouge. It is a quiet day in an otherwise busy venue, home to the Baton-Rouge Symphony, the LSU School of Art Gallery, the LSU Museum of Art, the Manship Theater (325 seats), classrooms and amenities such as a sushi restaurant on the rooftop.

The place is eerie (early Saturday) but I feel privileged to be here, alone among all these works. After a short introduction with enlightening comments about the artists and abstract art in the African-American community, the exhibition progresses with paintings and sculptures.

The giant canvasses from Edward Clark occupy most of the first and second room, bringing colors and movement to a point of romanticism, rendering abstract landscapes impressionistic, like "Louisiana Red" 2004, red sky, dark swamps, and infinite pale waters reflecting a peaceful , ethereal glow with the four elements air-fire, water and earth interdependent in the painting.

This is followed by "Luminous Turbulence", 2002, pinks and greys, "The Wave" 2006, blues and browns with the brush leaving deep crevasses on the canvas like the lines used to date trees, telling the history of the landscape.

Ed Clark is known for his "push broom" technique, applying the color on the canvass with a broom, bringing spontaneity and a physical dimension to his paintings. He can be qualified as a member of the American action painting movement.

Occasionally, he gives some relief to the canvass by using dry pigments, clay or soil from the countryside he is depicting, like in "The Crescent", 2006.

Smaller paintings, from the 60's and 70's, have a characteristic oval shape. Mainly related to voyages made by the artist, they evoke places with colours, and also bring memories of smells and sounds. The painter travelled extensively and produced the "Bahia Series", 1988, pink, violet , blue, the "Yucatan Series", 1976, turquoise, violet and pale blue, or the "Southern Light", 1978, green, black, blue. I found these paintings less spontaneous. The oval shape freezes the dynamic of the works.

The artist is well represented with 8 giant canvasses, 5 paintings in the oval series, and smaller works. For me, the "Wasted Landscape", 1961, seen above, is the most powerful of the large canvasses with its violent colors and message.

John T. Scott, a son from New Orleans, well known for his kinetic sculptures, is painting and sculpting music with his "Jazz thinking."
The works on display are mainly sculptures, like "Diddle Bow #1", 1983. The "Diddle Bow Series" was inspired by the African warriors who were using the hunting bows to make music after the fight. " Ritual Cutter 1&2", 1978, features two instruments of torture, in bright orange colour and "Dancing at the Crossroads", 1996 occupies a whole wall. The colours are a mixture of Mardi Gras and African exuberance. One can read a story, but the work does not use the space well, hybrid, between a wall decoration and a sculpture.
My preferred works are half a dozen sculptures from the "Circle Dance Series", light, gracious, of small sizes, made in patinated bronze which gives them an eternal look. They are creating rhythm in space with their circles of dance, strings and thin hammers. Like strange instruments, they could be played. "Boarded Back Window", 2001, "Kloee's Dream", "Zydeco Two Steps" with the lines of a dancer enhanced by the play with the shadows.
Three "Ethiopian Graffiti" complete the display.
The exhibition ignores his woodcut prints, but it is another story, and they would not fit in this colored display.

The third artist, Eugene Martin, was born in Washington, DC and later in life, moved to Louisiana. His paintings are a mixture of abstract and figurative. The painter never sided for a style and cubism, surrealism, color field techniques can be found in the same work. In a way, this makes him unique.
The colours are bold, sometimes just gaudy. His satirical abstract pieces send a cartoonish message, but in a sophisticated way, confusing the viewer.

The artist wrote: " They are opposing forces in all living things. My work reflect this and stirs up a contrast of emotions."

This exhibition is very rich and helps me understand these three artists, inspired by their roots, including colors and themes.
They were pioneers using the new abstract language, building their own voice. They will keep being heard.
The gallery's space is well used, and the abundance of works does not translate into overload. They are carefully displayed, each in its best light, without infringing on the next.
My eyes filled with colours, my next visit is the roof of the Shaw Center to enjoy the timid Spring sun and look at the lazy Mississippi.

1. "Wasted Landscape" 1961, Edward Clark

2. "Ethiopian Graffiti #3", John T. Scott

3. " Untitled" 2000, Eugene Martin

4. View from the top floor of the Shaw Center for the Arts

photographs 1, 2, 3, courtesy of the LSU Museum of Art
photograph 4 by the author

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