Although there are several Denver galleries that specialize in African-American art, oftentimes the work displayed is as safe and stereotypical as that of the most conservative Cherry Creek showroom. Few opportunities exist in the area for African-American artists on the cutting edge, those who don't conform to the demands of the commercial market.
That's why Seeing Ourselves: Art of the African-American Community in Denver, a contemporary art show at Emmanuel Gallery, is so welcome. Though it would have been easy to pad the show with safe art with little to say, many of these forty-plus works lean bravely toward the avant-garde. A project funded by the University of Colorado-Denver's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and curated by art history major Marvel Buchanan, the show intends for viewers to "see" Denver's African-American lifestyles through the eyes of its most adventurous artists. The resulting exhibit offers contemporary work full of depth, expertise and passion.
Ranging from the experienced and well known (such as Floyd Tunson) to spunky newcomers, the fifteen participating artists view their multifaceted subject in wildly different ways. The African-American tradition of storytelling is everywhere, but more global art trends also appear; vital social issues are explored, and painfully intimate personal concerns are probed. Refusing to be corralled by misinformed stereotypes of what African-American art is, these artists choose their own idiosyncratic ways to communicate. Their vibrant paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings and subversive takes on traditional crafts reveal insights into the complex brew that is Denver's African-American community.
The most visually commanding piece (and one that sets the rebellious political tone of the show) is Tunson's "Hearts and Minds," a passionate comment on African-American youth. Made of six large, assembled canvases that together dominate one wall, Tunson uses his trademark blend of painting and sculptural elements to take us on an intense trip through the 'hood. He begins with faces: the brave, threatened, sad, embittered faces of young gang members. Around these portraits Tunson places found objects, including partial skeletons and skulls, money, window frames and photocopies of insects. Hand-built cardboard submachine guns, whose precise representations are both comical and menacing, are also affixed to the piece. Ruling over the frightening collage are two huge, stark paintings of Colt .45 pistols. A dense and sprawling composition, "Hearts and Minds" defies brief analysis, but its distressing impact and visual bounty are unquestionable.
More guns appear in the work of Irvin Wheeler, whose colorful, cartoony painting "Love Is a Gun" changes an object of death into a slinky object of erotica. Wheeler embellishes his canvas with African kinte-cloth strips, which both color and organize the abstract-influenced work, infusing it with an ironic ethnic flavor. The implication that guns are a sign of power in America, just as kinte cloth is in African societies, adds depth to this canvas. Another Wheeler painting is more journalistic: "The Spirits Have Flown" shows a night scene of cops carrying away the body of a black "perp," their cold, impersonal air shocking in the face of death.
Not all of the works are as harrowing as Tunson's and Wheeler's. Dawn A. Wms Boyd makes acrylic paintings on cardboard, a traditional medium for self-taught African-American artists. In Boyd's hands, this junk material is transformed into polished contemporary portraits of great sensitivity and humor. The narrative quality and sense of family ties communicated in "When and Where I Enter" is as strong as the characters of the three substantial women pictured. And the rapping title of a dual portrait of two stylish women, "Fried, Dyed, and Laid to the Side, Twisted, Twirled, Swirled and Curled," says as much about African-American styles as the latest issue of Essence.
A virtuoso of representational art, Ron Hicks creates oil paintings of black domestic life that dazzle with their soft-focus realism. But because Hicks trades black faces for white in these Norman Rockwell-flavored vignettes, they can be interpreted as sophisticated postmodern critiques without losing their sweetness. The nostalgic tone of Hicks's untitled oil of a bus-station scene from an earlier age, where Mom and Pop are bidding goodbye to their big-city-bound son, is telling in all its narrative detail. And "Hear My Prayers," with its loving black Jesus giving solace to an awe-filled little girl in pigtails, drips sentiment, but the race reversal makes the depiction seem courageous rather than cloying.
The cutting-edge works of Corissa Jordan Schweitz-Gold display a different kind of courage. Of mixed Caucasian and black ancestry, Schweitz-Gold was adopted by white parents, and her photographic, graphic and sculptural works reveal the pressure, pain and confusion of not truly belonging to either racial group. "Projections" is a photographic diptych resembling the works of Lorna Simpson. Two pretty faces (of the artist?) are arranged side-by-side, one in whiteface, one in blackface; both are false masks. Next to this, Schweitz-Gold's sculptural installation "Passing" includes a mirror with the word "passing" emblazoned on it, allowing viewers to see themselves and reflect on the artist's situation.
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Also dealing with issues of identity and culture, Helen W. Littlejohn uses crayon-box colors and flat, decorative design strategies reminiscent of African folk art to illustrate her own African-American experience. Her mixed-media painting "Black Dyke--Pressed Hair Blues" mimics the off-center perspective of children's art to cover a frankly adult subject. And "I Looks Good in Red" uses stripped-down imagery and sly intelligence to capture the mischief and delight of a young girl in a new dress.
Viewers will leave this show wanting more. It's unfortunate that, with the exception of Tunson, who has major gallery representation, the work of these artists can usually be seen only at "African-American Art" shows. I look forward to a time when that distinction is descriptive rather than restrictive. In the meantime, Seeing Ourselves is definitely a step in the right direction.
Seeing Ourselves: Art of the African-American Community in Denver, through July 3 at Emmanuel Gallery, 10th and Lawrence Street, Auraria Campus, 556-8337.