Common Misconceptions

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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia