Saturday, February 29, 2020


Post-war New York City saw the birth of abstract expressionism led by a group of white male artists. Norman Lewis, the only artist of color among them, is now considered the forebearer of African American abstraction. From then on, abstract enriched the vocabulary of artists who had to overcome the indifference, sometimes worse, the rejection not only from the art world but also from their own communities. Two years ago the Ogden Museum of Southern Art premiered a memorable exhibition Four Generations: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art. This time, the more intimate display assembles the works of sixteen African American artists, each represented by one piece from the museum's permanent collection. What Music is Within: Black Abstraction from the Permanent Collection complements a solo show Melvin Edwards: Crossroads set in the main gallery on the fifth floor.

Colors hit you when you enter the space. How can such a busy group show fit in the small gallery? A second look reveals the carefully laid out display which includes a large drawing from
Ron Bechet surrounded by wall sculptures from John T. Scott and Kevin Cole facing the entrance, and on the right side, three geometric abstract compositions in conversation with three expressionist paintings across the room. When turning around, the visitor encounters a stunning draped canvas from Sam Gilliam and next to it a smaller "box" in shades of pink constructed by Jeffrey CookClifton Webb's Totem, N.D., completes the show introduced by a wall text, a painting from Horton Humble, the youngest artist, member of Level Art Collective and a sculpture from Martin Payton profiled on the window's light in the hall.

This is a short description of the exhibition which warrants an in-depth look for the occasion to discover less famous artists like Merton Simpson or Moses Hogan who was better known as a pianist, conductor and composer. One can get lost in Forest Party, 1993, from the former, a textured rendition without focal point or look for the spiritual meaning of Turning Wheels, 1984, from the latter. Of course, local artists with their deep-rooted ties to music are well represented. John T. Scott was known to create his work while "jazz thinking" in his studio. His three pieces from the Ritual Cutter  series (1978) hung on the wall evoke instruments of torture, pain, tears, a song filled with sadness, and also of hope with colors bright like the sun. Music is a family affair for Martin Payton, brother of the famed trumpet player Nicholas and his sculptures often bear the name of  musicians, on view here Dexter, 1998, for Dexter Gordon. When I look to Ron Bechet's (related to Sydney) works, I hear Spirituals. Jeffrey Cook was a dancer for a period of time. Sam Gilliam is a fan of  Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Eugene Martin thought about becoming a jazz musician like his father and it shows in his jazzy composition illustrating the correspondence between rhythm and lines, melody and colors. Both Gilliam and Martin were connected in some ways with the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C., Robert Reed spent most of his career further North as a teacher at Yale University School of Art and  Arlington Weathers migrated from Guyana. The exhibition stretches not only geographically but also in time, representing fifty years of African American abstract art and its various styles from expressionist to geometric and color field.

Music needs to be heard, visual art needs to be seen and the exhibition is a great occasion to look at pieces of the permanent collection in the context of music. William T. Williams states that he was often asked:"Why are you making abstraction? It's not African American art" and he would answer "Jazz is the most abstract of all music. Music is totally abstract. How can you not say there's a tradition of abstraction."

photographs by the author:

view of the exhibition: 
Robert Reed "San Romano, Monticello, Brick II", 1982
John Barnes "Doe Poppin' II", 2015
Clifton Webb "Totem", N.D.

Eugene Martin "Geometric Abstract", 1999

Sam Gilliam "Drape Work", 1970

Friday, February 7, 2020

In Search of Beauty

The title of the exhibition Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires gives the key to Thomas's latest show  at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. For the art lovers who visited Mickalene Thomas: Waiting on a Prime-Time Star at the Newcomb Art Museum two years ago, it feels like an update with the display of more recent works. First time viewers can appreciate the whole gamut of the artist's practice including her paintings, photographs, videos, films and iconic "tableaux".

Located on the building's first floor, the exhibition starts with a large painting facing the visitor at the entrance. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010, features three black women and the shadow of a sculpture from Matisse in the background in place of Manet's four subjects. Inspired by a photograph shot in the sculpture garden at MoMA, the work underwent several stages: cutting, collaging, painting with acrylic, oil, enamel, adding rhinestones (reference to pointillism according to the artist) to reach the final composition. Already displayed in a number of venues, it has brought in mainly positive reviews and the imposing figures succeed in making the visitor blink under their bold stare.

Following this masterpiece, Me as Muse, 2016, provides a very intimate encounter with the artist through a twelve-monitor video installation featuring images of her naked body intermingled with those of Western paintings depicting bare females, Saartjie Baartman (the Ottentot Venus) and brightly colored African textiles. Unabashed, the artist rejuvenates the myth of the nude and the canons of beauty.

The front of the gallery is occupied by a living-room, an invitation to curl up on a sofa and read a book from the selection of volumes piled up on the floor: Toni MorrisonZadie Smith, Maya Angelou, ... Houseplants, comfortable furniture decorated with African prints, books, carpets, rugs, fill the replicas of the artist's childhood interiors. In her interview for Artnet Thomas sheds some light on her "tableaux". She describes how she recreates familiar spaces from her memories: "we construct our spaces in various ways to express ourselves". The domestic installations provide a way to connect with the artist and her history.

The next works are hung along the walls leading to the back of the gallery. The mirror-based series are portraits inspired by the book and movie The Color Purple, and strong characters like Diahann Carroll or Naomi Sims. Most of Thomas's creations start with photographs  undergoing several processes, this time the last one involves silkscreening onto a mirror. The dreamy subjects appear remote and subdued, without a smile or eye contact, filled with the blues.
This is in contrast with Do I Look Like a Lady? a raucous video installation projected on multiple screens lining up two walls around a second living room. The You-tube clips of famous singers or comedians are selected according to their relevance to the plight of black females. The quarter of an hour projection is best viewed sitting on one of the comfortable armchairs.

In the next room, the smaller space allows the display of four works, two "picassian" paintings- collages  facing each other and two black and white Polaroid portraits of queer models (according to the wall text) engaging the camera with a proud stare, Courbet #2 and Courbet #4. The show ends with one of Thomas's black and white film shown in a dark backroom. Twenty minutes long,  je t'aime, 2014, shows close-ups of the artist and her partner on two adjacent screens. The camera is moving slowly over bare skins and it feels like intruding when confronted with the gaze of the two lovers enjoying their intimacy. In the background the sound of water dripping gives a measure of time.

The 49-year-old artist has been recognized by the art world for more than a decade and pundits have discussedanalyzeddissected her work already. Inspired by a long list of artists, she has absorbed the essence of their practice to grow her own, characterized by multiple references to art history in her signature portraits of black women made in various media, from photography to collages, paintings, videos and movies. Ultimately her quest is powered by her own history starting with her childhood's memories, growing up as a black queer woman. Her art can be considered provocative and inciting voyeurism, but skin, breasts and pubic hair aside, her portraits are about the inner strength of her subjects conveyed through their intense gaze. The relatively modest show with about a dozen well selected works enriched by informative wall texts allows to sample Thomas's practice, interact with her homey interiors and follow the artist in her quest for new canons of beauty.

photographs by the author:

"Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires", 2010
"Sister: Shug Avery Breakfast", 2016
"Portrait of Aaliyah", 2017