When I first got word of Soon Come: The Art of Contemporary Jamaica, a traveling group show now at Metro State's Center for the Visual Arts in LoDo, I thought to myself: "Soon Come? Ho hum." Rum's what I think of when I think of Jamaica, not credible contemporary art. In my mind's eye, I conjured up images of wildly colored floral pictures and equally vibrant village scenes, the kind of things meant to snare tourists off the cruise ships.
But Sally Perisho, the able director of the CVA, painted a different picture. "It's not at all what you think," she told me over the phone. She described the exhibit, which is sponsored by the Nebraska Arts Council, as "dark and brooding," and she went on to say that many of the pieces are extremely elegant.
Now, over the years, I've come to respect what Perisho has to say, so I believed her. Then she reminded me of something else. "Albert Chong's in the show," she said.
A fine-art professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Chong is one of Colorado's most significant photographers, and he's Jamaican. (Surprisingly, there are many Chinese in Jamaica; in fact, Jamaicans fall roughly into four groups: those of English descent, those with African origins, those whose ancestors came from China, and combinations of these.) He's also on a roll right now. Chong is the centerpiece of a soon-to-open show at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, and he was included in the Jamaican section of this year's Venice Bienale.
The traveling version of Soon Come included two images by Chong, but Perisho has added more than half a dozen to her installment, devoting an entire section of the show to him.
The first of the two that are part of the traveling portion is "Self Portrait With Eggs," an oversized gelatin silver print from 1985, in which Chong depicts himself in the nude. He has cropped his head out of the photo, but his long dreadlocks hang over his chest. He has also cropped out his genitals. In his left hand, he holds three empty eggshells. There's an enigmatic narrative here; easier to appreciate is the linear power of the composition, in which Chong takes a modified contrapasto pose.
"Blessings With Cigar Smoke and Gorilla Spirits" is more signature Chong. In this huge horizontal photo, a gelatin silver print from 1992, he has created a scene in which a gorilla skull on a grass-covered chair has been placed in the middle of a circle of fruit and offering bowls that have been placed on the floor. The photo has been taken in darkness with the camera's shutter open for a long time. During the exposure, Chong has introduced himself briefly into the scene, thus leaving a ghostly image along with a puff of cigar smoke enveloping the skull and the chair.
Surely, Perisho was interested in the show because of Chong's Colorado presence, but there's more to it than that. Nearly twenty years ago, when she was running the gallery at Arapahoe Community College, Perisho presented her first Jamaican art show. This longtime interest in Jamaican art even led Perisho to eventually find another Jamaican artist in Colorado: S.A. Bennett. A self-taught painter and sculptor, Bennett is also a teacher in the Denver Public Schools. Unlike Chong, she was not included in the traveling portion of Soon Come, so Perisho has prepared a special section of the show devoted to Bennett's work as well. This, along with the Chong portion, means Perisho has nearly doubled the size of Soon Come.
A number of the works in the rest of the show explore figural abstraction, such as Stanford Watson's "Untitled." In this expressively painted mixed-media composition, Watson has placed a masklike face floating above a fish on a scumbled field of blues evoking both the sky and the sea. Even more expressionistic are the three paintings by Omari Ra, "Three Black Heads (for Marcus Garvey)," a mixed-media work on paper from 1987. The surfaces are lively, with heavily applied thick black paint mixed in with white and red. There are three discernible heads, but none is detailed.
There are some things that are entirely abstract, calling on both neo-abstract expressionism and neo-minimalism. In the former category is the spectacular "Mystical Interior," an oil on linen from 1999 by Bryan McFarlane. In this large painting, which is dominated by dark tones, especially black, McFarlane recalls the work of American artist Arshille Gorky. Also referring to abstract expressionism is "Group Dynamics," a stoneware and wood sculptural group from 1997 by David Pinto. "Group Dynamics" is made up of three vertical elements, each taking the form of a spinelike spire.
Two of the most beautiful pieces in Soon Come are by David Boxer. "Middle Passage" is a three-part abstract mixed-media work on canvas, in which the compositions of the panels echo one another. "Study for Middle Passage" is a mixed-media collage on board that's very different from the finished painting, particularly Boxer's use of X-rays in the study. "Middle Passage" was completed in 1997; the study was done in 1995. Not only is Boxer an artist, but he is also a part of the Jamaican cultural establishment: He founded the Jamaican National Gallery.
Among the neo-minimalist -- or should I say post-minimalist? -- objects is "Presence/Absence," a large sculpture by Petrona Morrison from 1999. I say perhaps post-minimalist because, though the formal elements are ordered and rectilinear as they are in good old-fashioned minimalism, the finish is uneven, and the black paint is actually peeling in places -- a decidedly un-minimalist aspect. (Neo-minimalism pays homage to the style, while post-minimalism subtly takes it apart.)
More clearly neo-minimalist is the work of Hope Brooks, in which multi-part grids -- one painting has twelve elements, the other sixteen -- are made up of individually articulated panels that are all painted with a modulated field; all look essentially the same, though the colors vary. Brooks has been the director of the Jamaica School of Art, a part of the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, for nearly twenty years. Fittingly, the college is the center of Jamaican artistic life. Many of the other artists in Soon Come, including Watson, Ra, McFarlane and Morrison, are also associated with it, either as onetime students or teachers.
The most surprising thing about the show, though, is this prevalence of abstracts -- many by the artists from Manley. So Perisho was right: There is a lot of unexpected material in Soon Come.
In a parallel situation, another center director alerted me to a show that doesn't exactly bring to mind contemporary art. Carol Dickinson of Golden's Foothills Art Center phoned me and said, "I don't expect you to come up to the watermedia show, and ordinarily, I wouldn't even suggest that you do, but this year's show is really different." The show Dickinson's referring to is the annual Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Exhibition 2001.
Most of the artists who work with watercolors tend -- for whatever reason -- to do conservative pictures of bowls of fruit, vases of flowers, landscapes, wildlife scenes and children seen in sentimental and cloying poses, rather than anything even vaguely contemporary and relevant. And most of this year's watermedia show in Golden is made up of just that. But Dickinson was right -- there was something more. About a third of the paintings take up contemporary-art topics.
"It was our juror this year," says Dickinson. "She was fabulous. Her name is Katherine Chang Liu. She really took a lot of risks, and she put a lot of things in the show that previous jurors would not have, such as choosing the many dark and moody abstractions that she did, which are quite a surprise." Liu, who was born in China, grew up in Taiwan and studied art at the University of California at Berkeley, has been a professional artist for 25 years. She first exhibited her own work in the Rocky Mountain Watermedia Exhibition way back in 1978.
There are several standouts. S. Farrior Harden's "Defense d'Afficher: Lola," is a collage and watercolor incorporating words and scribbles. Also very nice is Meg Ingraham's "Too Soon to Tell," an elegant automatist painting that's technically a watermedia piece but looks more like a conventional painting. That's also true of the marvelous "Opus 32," by Yongsook Kim-Lambert. And there's quite a bit more, too.
Although I still wouldn't say that Jamaica is a main player in the art world, or that watermedia is rife with artistic possibilities, it turns out that first impressions can be wrong.
What the pyramids were to the ancient Egyptians, what the cathedrals were to medieval Europe, skyscrapers are to us. They are symbols of America's wealth, ingenuity and refinement. Of all building types, none are so grand, so sublime or so wonderful as our nation's skyscrapers, and few were more revered, more admired or more famous than the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center -- the visual and physical anchor of Lower Manhattan's financial district. The fanatics who brought them down understood that symbolic power, which is why they chose to target those particular buildings.
When the Twin Towers were built, between 1967 and 1973, they represented a bold urban design stroke. With this one complex, architect Minoru Yamasaki and his client, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, created a sense of aesthetic balance for the city's skyline when seen in the classic views from Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey. The visual weight of Lower Manhattan was made equal to the much more densely composed Midtown, where the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are located. Another of Yamasaki's great accomplishments was the ratio of width to height that brought the Twin Towers a sense of humanity. Despite their great height, their individual footprints were fairly small, creating two exaggeratedly vertical forms. Yamasaki underscored this tall and narrow attribute by giving the towers delicately articulated surfaces created by cast-aggregate vertical ribs, some of which rose from the ground to the roofline. This attenuated verticality also contributed to the successful relationship of the buildings to the rest of the city's skyline, since, though taller than all the other buildings in New York, they were conceived in precisely the same scale.
It will be a long time before we recover from the unspeakable horrors we've all witnessed, but in a real sense, New York's iconic skyline was diminished forever.
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