Monday, April 30, 2012

Blackness in Art Museums

On my way to see the exhibition of African American art at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, I found a book titled " Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum" at the Menil Collection's bookstore in Houston. Published recently by University of Massachusetts Press, it is written by Bridget R. Cook, art historian, presently professor at the University of California, Irvine.

In her introduction, the author gives a detailed overview of the following chapters and how she chose key events in the art world to make her point: the neglect of African American art (or Black art as opposed to White art) in museums.
The first chapter concentrates on two exhibitions which took place at the end of the 1930's, Exhibition of Sculpture by William Edmondson and Contemporary Negro Art. The author also describes the goal of the Harmon foundation and the unique exhibition in 1940 of Jacob Lawrence's work The Negro Migration at the MoMA, replacing these events in their historical, political, social contexts and discussing their impact.
Chapter 2 relates another key exhibition Harlem on my mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968  which brought controversy before its opening in 1969 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Chapter 3 discusses Two Centuries of Black American Art, an exhibition which took place at the LACMA in 1976 and was a response to the Met's exhibition.
Chapter 4 is about another controversial exhibition almost twenty years later, Black Male: Representation of Black Masculinity in Contemporary American Art staged at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1994.
The last chapter brings up a discussion about art, referring to the exhibition organized at the Houston Museum of Art Quilts of Gee's Bend in 2002.

The author comments at length on these events which are catalysts in African American art. She discusses the goals of the museum curators in sink with political events, local or societal upheavals (like 1968). Her sources are well researched and the end of the book provides a list of notes and references. 
The balanced discussion with numerous quotes analyzes the impact of the exhibitions on local community and their responses.
The conclusion is a dense discussion about the role of African American artists and the display of their works in art museums.
 Twenty-two colored plates and thirty historical photographs in black and white illustrate the text.
 Even after a short epilogue, it feels like the book ends abruptly and needs one more chapter to give a broader update concerning the status of African Americans and the American Art Museum.

photographs by the author
"Urban Towniw", 2001, Chakaia Booker, permanent collection NOMA
"Chevron 1957", Clementine Hunter, permanent collection NOMA
New Orleans Museum of Art during the exhibition "Beyond the Blues"                                                                              

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Along the Coast...

A trip to the Coast for a day ( or a week-end) should include a visit at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi and at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art across the bridge in Ocean Springs.
The Ohr Museum presently features a selection of portraits from the Mott-Warsh Collection at the Gallery of African American Art. Twenty artists are represented by thirty works, including paintings, drawings, lithographs, watercolors and one sculpture. Some artists are well-known like Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Wyatt. The common subject of the exhibition is to show black portraiture to "examine the social, political, and cultural nuances of the Black face and head in fine art and popular visual culture" according to the catalogue of the exhibition. The quality of the catalogue published for the occasion needs to be emphasized. It becomes also a great reference later.

A similar very informative catalogue comes with the other exhibition in the next gallery Earth.Sea.Sky, Southern Ceramics from the Dod Stewart Collection. A detailed history and description of features related to the Newcomb, Singing River and Shearwater potteries invite the visitor to take a closer look at the precious works.
A very interesting visit which of course includes a viewing of Ohr's potteries described in a previous blog.
The next visit is fifteen minutes away, at the WAMA. Recently the museum displayed  Walter Anderson's and John Alexander's works, One World, Two Artists, John Alexander and Walter Anderson  first held at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The future is looking good with another interesting exhibition coming up in June with works from the abstract artist Eugene Martin.
Stretching the trip, one can drive to Mobile to see
Today's Visual Language Southern Abstraction, A Fresh Look at the museum of art. This is my next visit, stay tuned...

photographs by the author:
"Running Wild", Allie McGhee, 1941
"Mother and Child", Romare Barden, 1969

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blood in the Gulf

Shifting: Photographs by Michel Varisco just opened at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The exhibition composed of photographs and photographic installations of Louisiana wetlands and the Gulf of Mexico, mostly through aerial views, deals with a subject of inspiration for artists in the South. The impact of the disasters from hurricanes to floods on the land is a common concern for the inhabitants, so is the impact of the interaction between man and nature.

The artist brings a fresh view to recurrent themes. The oil covering the water in "Sheen of Oil", 2010, with colored reflections on the water creates an abstract composition... it is pollution. The Gulf becomes a dantesque inferno with the oil burning ("Oil Burns in Gulf", 2010) and the Causeway from the sky, a path to nowhere. The photographer brings an unstable view of the land in "Mouth of the Atchafalaya River", 2011, with a soft light reflected by fine ripples on the water, left, and the shadow of a round island, right. The subject in the center is the deep dark water. "Morganza Spillway Water", 2012, is a dizzying photograph. A mountain of water climbs the flat land, its strength suggested by the oblique lines created by the flow. In "Blood in the Water", 2010, the oil through a chemical reaction, brings a new color to the Gulf's waters: red.
The artist offers a new vision of Louisiana wetlands and the Gulf, beyond all cliches. The frailty of the land surveyed reminds us that beauty is ephemereal and can be found in disasters or following disasters. Michel Varisco transferred her love of the land in these technical and artistic masterpieces. mixed with despair. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Spring at the Saint-Claude Arts District

The installation "Catalpa, Reality, Resurrection, Revolution and Sir Joshua Reynolds" by Robert Tannen at the Homespace Gallery sends a message of hope with pieces of a dying catalpa tree supporting thin wooden sticks even a fishing rod, spread like fans in the air. From these dead pieces of wood, life springs again. The contrast between the old wood, wrinkled by the years and the elements and the thin wooden sticks, vigorous but fragile gives the message: regeneration, life, transformation. From the abandonned wood, the artist grows a forest and creates a space for reflection in the tradition of the Japanese gardens. Life never ends, death is just a transformation. The photographs and drawings of the gigantic tree along the installation are also the testimony of nature's resilience as I witnessed near the bayou after the hurricane. The salt water had wiped out all the tall trees, gray replaced green. The trees are back, more vigorous. The installation is a celebration of life and in tune with the season.

Farther down the road, The Good Children Gallery is also opened. It seems that some painters invent their own colors. Jessica Bizer is one of these artists. Her technique creates surreal works, glowing with a light she must have caught looking directly at the sun.

Across the street, The Front presents several artists with very different messages, among them Dick Keaveny, his series of Piggies, grotesque caricatures remind us that greed and I guess gluttony (considering the fleshy faces) are on the list of the seven deadly sins! Caricature is a tradition among artists, Leonardo da Vinci found his subjects in the streets.
The Saint-Claude Arts District is alive and well with an opening every second Saturday of the month.
photograph by the author
"Hope It's True", Jessica Bizer, 2012

Tamarind 's Fifty

To commemorate the fifty's birthday of the Tamarind Lithography Workshop (now Tamarind Institute), the University of New Mexico Art Museum organized an exhibition which travelled to the Newcomb Art Gallery on the Tulane campus in New Orleans. June Wayne who died in August 2011 at the age of 93, is credited with the creation of the Tamarind Workshop in Los Angeles in the 1960's. It was transferred to the University of New Mexico in 1970.

"Tamarind Touchstones: Fabulous at Fifty" includes eighty lithographs from the Tamarind archives displayed in close quarters along the walls of the gallery: Joseph Almyda "Fleur du Mal III", 1987, Roy De Forest "The Wizards of Hand gliding", 1995, Ellen Berkenblit "Return of Bright Brown", 2003-2004... and it goes on. The display appears random, not by subjects, chronology, artists or techniques. A few well-known artists are represented like Kiki Smith, Leon Golub, June Wayne herself, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Joseph Albers, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Kelly, one work for each artist only. In the center, viewed from all sides are the two panels from Jim Dine, " Double Dose of Color", 2009.
The works remind us that lithographs are made through the collaboration between artists and craftsmen and the display could have been an occasion to describe the process of lithography.
I found a site easy to navigate from the MoMA to explain the techniques.
The exhibition has a limited impact, purely aesthetic and appears to have been curated without a clear goal.

photograph by the author
"Niobid" Leon Golub, 1965

Friday, April 6, 2012

From Folk Art to Abstract Expressionism

Controversy or age does not phase down Thornton Dial who is back on the museums tour. His latest exhibition takes place at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The artist's message is punchy. The first room, somber with darker works like "The Last Day of Martin Luther King", 1992 or bright screaming yellow and red like "Blood and Meat. Survival of the World", 1992, gives the flavor of the exhibition. Several works are directly related to African American history, among them "High and Wide ( Carrying the Rats to the Man)", 2002 and "Green Pastures: The Birds That Didn't Learn How to Fly", 2008, sober but equally powerful. The giant canvasses, covered with thick paint and material found around the farm: carpets, goat hides, metal barbed wire, ropes, old cars parts...whether related to Dial's experience on the farm like "Billy Goat Hill" 2000 or current events like Martin Luther King's death are telling vivid stories.

A few sculptures appear to be the result of an adventure with the material and have little aesthetic qualities.

Overall, the works are engaged, inspired by events or controversial subjects. The artist is not afraid to tackle women's rights with "Trophies (Doll Factory)", 2000. Derision, tragedy, humor, political or simple emotions, the artist's scope of language is wide. The message appears less genuine in some of the later works like "Driving to the End of the World", 2004, a series of five works related to the global oil crisis, geopolitics of the middle East and the fate of the world ecology, according to the comments next to the works. Let's not forget, the artist is illiterate.

References like "Expressionist brush stroke of color filled with rich allegories" are overreaching and distract the visitor. The artist has been compared to Pollock, Rauschenberg, Basquiat... The first two artists were prominent in the 40's and 50's and the comparison with Basquiat's works is a stretch.

What should be emphasized is the artist's drive, his energy translated in these magisterial compositions and his uniqueness. His primal and universal message sinks under the pseudo-intellectual comments delivered to the visitor.
Thornton Dial can see shapes, colors and transcend objects and surroundings. He is inhabited by his heritage, driven by some ancestral, universal creativity which he transcribes with little intellectual input which makes it so powerful.The documentary "Mr Dial has Something to Say" is about the rehabilitation of Mr. Arnett, the collector who brought Thornton Dial and others, from Alabama to the world. The recuperation of the artist's work for political or financial purposes is shameless is a wicked world. Thornton Dial appears witty, full of humor and common sense with a dose of skepticism.

To reassure the art world, his works have to be labelled: not folk art or abstract expressionism, I would chose the term coined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet, " art brut or raw art".

photographs by the author
"High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man), 2002
"Construction of the Victory", 1997