Wandering through Constructing Identity, the lavish exhibition of African-American art from the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection that sprawls across several upstairs galleries at the Portland Art Museum through June 18, I found myself looking for a unifying theme.
With work by more than eighty artists ranging in time from an 1885 landscape by Edward M. Bannister and Grafton Tyler Brown’s 1891 painting of a geyser in Yellowstone National Park to very contemporary pieces, it wasn’t easy.
As I moved slowly from room to room I began gathering impressions and testing ideas.
Might the theme be the dominance of figurativism in 20th and early 21st century African American art?
Plenty of evidence for that, including Frederick D. Jones’s probing ca. 1945-50 oil portrait of a downcast woman holding a platter of fish, and Charles White’s black-and-white 1965 etching Missouri C., which stretches more than four feet wide and fairly leaps to life with the arresting image of a capacious black woman in profile staring toward a wide-angle emptiness of striations and spots.
Then again, might it be the depiction of community, of a people overcoming?
Good evidence here, too. Palmer Hayden’s small oil painting Madonna of the Stoop, for instance, from about 1940, captures in vivid folkish shapes and colors a quiet urban domestic scene, a moment of small happiness: a mother and baby sitting on the stairs of a brownstone building; a bigger girl smiling and playing with the baby, reaching out to touch it; a boy on the lower step reading a book; another boy sliding down the wide stair railings; a dog and the lower half of a second woman standing in the doorway at the top of the frame; a couple of cherub faces with wings floating in little clouds. The mother and the baby are the glue of it all, and their heads are circled, almost as afterthoughts, with thin halos.
Could it be about the flourishing of the large number of black artists born at the end of the 19th century and in the first two decades of the 20th century?
Paul Keene’s bold 1985 portrait Blue Dress; Beni E. Kosh’s twisted-perspective, surrealist-tinged, African-influenced 1964 oil Mask; John Wilson’s striking 1974 etching Dialogue of a young black head and a larger, looming skull in white; Alan Freeland’s 1928 oil painting View of Gloucester St. suggest the robust stylistic variety among such artists.
Might it be the emergence of abstraction as a potent force in black art?
The exploding colors and geometric interlockings of Nelson Stevens’ 2013 serigraph Spirit Sister; Kevin Cole’s sinuous 1998 3-D mixed media piece Dreams Over Memories; the rhythmic blocks of shape and color in Robert Blackburn’s 1960 lithograph Color Symphony; the scrawled markings and typographical remnants of Ed Hughes’s 1982 oil #2 Man in the Mirror; Moe Booker’s vibrantly musical 2012 painting Intentions and Improvisations all declare an embrace of the abstract.
Or is it the persistence of the politics of resistance?
Sonja Clark’s mixed-media piece Afro Abe – a five-dollar bill with a brilliantly bushy afro added to Abe Lincoln’s head – is a witty slap in the cultural face. Kara Walker’s large 1999-2000 screenprint The Emancipation Approximation, with her trademark cutout figures and its silhouette image of a black woman struggling to hold a white woman above her head, is as crisp and cutting as a trial attorney’s closing argument. Faith Ringgold’s bleakly marvelous 2009 serigraph Absolute Tyranny lulls you with its stylistic borrowings from colonial American naïve art, then wallops you with the starkly violent reality of its images of urban warfare and rural lynchings.
Somewhere among the Elizabeth Catletts and Paul Keenes it struck me that the answer to each question is yes, and the answer to each is no: The point of Constructing Identity is that the meanings of being an African American or an African-American artist are so very broad that the broadness itself is the point. If the show’s meandering and seemingly random installation sometimes dilutes the telling of the tale – I often found no discernible reason for why particular pieces were where they were in the galleries – the story still comes through. As your mind and eyes travel through this stimulating collection of work, the vitality springs from the variety itself, that thing you can’t quite pin down, and maybe shouldn’t be trying to.
The title Constructing Identity suggests the exhibition’s elusiveness. Its curator, Berrisford Booth, who is also principal curator of the Petrucci collection, identifies six broad themes: abstraction, community, faces, gender, spirit, the land. He stresses that American ideas about race – about “blackness” and “whiteness” – are more about social, political, and economic distinctions than biological ones. As a result, black American art is both separate from and integral to American art in general.
Racial identity, he writes in the exhibition’s excellent catalog, “is not impermeable, it must be consistently explored and reinvented. … We temper our disenfranchisement with innovation. We appropriate to associate and elevate, but very rarely to simply imitate. … The tenacity and endurance and global value of the constructed African-American identity is rooted in our poly-cultural, legally interrupted, genealogical past. Instead of understanding the African continent as home to hundreds of distinct cultures, labels like ‘black’ and ‘white’ persist to reduce the historical complexity and achievements of pre-colonial, pre-slave trade Africans to a single post-colonial identity.”
The art made by Americans of African descent, by extension, recaptures or reinvents some of that complexity, impacted by the American experience but not bound by its simplified storyline. It rises, more profoundly, from the multitude of things that African Americans are. And so of course it’s hard to pin down.
With a little over 100 works by its more than 80 artists, Constructing Identity represents a good share of the Petrucci collection, which is young and growing: It began less than five years ago and included 230 works as of last summer. Boothe has been its eye from the beginning, working with his friend the New Jersey and Pennsylvania collector Jim Petrucci, and they decided early on to concentrate on African American artists.
Some big names in historical and contemporary black art aren’t represented: Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Theaster Gates, Titus Kaphar, Sanford Biggers, Robert Colescott, Horace Pippin. But the likes of Walker, Ringgold, Catlett, Willie Cole, and Romare Bearden hold distinguished places in the art world at large, and part of this exhibition’s appeal is how it showcases artists who could and should be better-known.
That includes a couple from Oregon. Portland painter Arvie Smith, whose rich and challenging Apex show at the Portland Art Museum has been extended through March 12 and is a fine companion to Constructing Identity, has a large oil called Trapeze Artist. And Ralph Chessé (1900-1991), who lived and worked in his latter years in the southern Oregon town of Ashland, has an enchanting 1947 oil, Cows at Rest. It’s easy to imagine other Oregon artists – Isaka Shamsud-Din, Adriene Cruz, the late Charlotte Lewis and Philemon Reid – fitting into this collection.
Exploring Constructing Identity is almost more like walking through a good small museum, with a variety of work on a general theme, than a sharply focused exhibition like the recent Kerry James Marshall show at the Met Breuer or PAM’s Arvie Smith exhibit. With its loose, free-jazz structure it relaxes the curatorial hand and lets visitors make their own discoveries and connections. Here are a few of mine:
I’m partial to the craftsmanship and studied flexibility of etchings and other prints, particularly in black and white, and the exhibit has several fine examples: Eldzier Cortor’s geometric, boldly patterned, African-stylized 1974 etching Compositional Study No. III; Elizabeth Catlett’s spare-lined 1995 lithograph Blues Player; Camille Billops’s free-flowing, languid and challenging 1973 intaglio I Am Black, I Am Black, I Am Dangerously Black; Emma Amos’s stark and riveting 1974 etching American Girl; the shocking mood swing between two linocuts – Hale Woodruff’s 1935 Returning Home (a woman climbing rickety stairs toward her hillside shack) and John Biggers’s 1964 Birmingham, Children of the Morning (a determined and fearful march toward a schoolhouse).
The paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) usually seem to me conservative and very 19th century European in their inclination, but I know them mostly through reproductions. Seeing his undated oil Nicodemus (Portrait of a Bearded Man) was a bit of an eye-opener. His brushstrokes and layerings of paint are masterful.
The great Romare Bearden is represented by a single piece, and – surprise! – it’s a tapestry, Circe, 1978, almost five feet high and a lush seven feet long, of a reclining black sorceress being brought a bowl by a black servant, with a sailing ship peeking through the window. The stylization and texture make it feel almost like a fresco from the ruins of Pompeii.
Chris Ofili is a British artist and so a bit of an odd man out in this show of African American art. But then, several of the artists in the show have traveled and worked and sometimes lived in Europe and Africa and elsewhere, so a little turnabout seems fair play. Ofili lives and works in Trinidad these days, so the distance shrinks more. And I like seeing his small, serene 1999 watercolor Untitled (Orange Dress), partly for its ease and obvious skill and partly because it underlines that he should be known for more than his painting The Holy Virgin Mary, which Rudy Giuliani and other culture warriors of the right turned into a headline-grabbing skirmish in the neo-holy wars.
Scattered among the galleries is a neat mini-series on Biblical and mythological themes, including Hayden’s Madonna of the Stoop. Two retell the tale of Adam and Eve: a 1960 engraving by James Lesesne Wells that blends medieval stylization with a sense of something emerging magically from the thicket of a dense wood, and Joyce Scott’s quite wonderful 2009 small sculpture of glass beads and thread depicting Adam reaching toward the top of the tree where Eve perches as the serpent coils around the trunk. Margaret Burroughs’s equally marvelous 1957 linocut Black Venus echoes Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus but with a more forthright gaze, a proud emergence from the sea. And Marita Dingus’s 2004 mixed-media wall sculpture Anthony Tightly Wrapped, almost four feet tall, plays on the myths and histories of mummified Egyptian boy-kings, relating them to the restrictive bindings of being a black child in America.
A few artists have multiple pieces in the exhibition, and in the case of Barbara Bullock they provide a chance to see a single artist’s change and development over the years, from her brusque and simple charcoal drawing Brother in 1968 to 1985’s bright and rhythmic gouache and gold leaf painting The Whirling Dance to her lovely and fully abstract 2012 mixed media wall hanging Stories My Grandmother Told Me. As with so many good artists, things get freer as she grows older.
What, then, in the end, is Constructing Identity about? It is, I suppose, an unfinished – maybe even an unending – story. As the exhibition catalog quotes Romare Bearden from a 1947 essay, “The Negro artist must come to think of himself not primarily as a Negro artist, but as an artist.”
This is black art. This is black art. This is black art. This is American art. This is American art. This is American art. This is art. This is art. This is art. Like life itself, it’s broad and varied and unpredictable. If it doesn’t all fit neatly together, isn’t that the point?