The Soul of Black Art: A Collector’s View, up through October 15 at Upfor Gallery, is a smart, sophisticated show, both socially and aesthetically, and you really don’t want to miss it. For its third anniversary show, Upfor gave over curating duties to the collector John Goodwin, who’s put together a stimulating small exhibit that reverberates with history while also feeling contemporary.
Drawing from his and Michael-Jay Robinson’s own collection and other sources, Goodwin concocts a vibrant mix of paintings, prints, photographs, video, and mixed-media works that probe the black American experience from inside and out, in highly personal and broadly cultural terms. Works by the likes of Romare Bearden, Marion Post-Wolcott, Devan Shimoyama, Andy Warhol, Arvie Smith, Marian Carresquero, and Zig Jackson dance in and around the essence of blackness in America, providing a multiplicity of views that defy political platitudes and easy headlines.
Upfor’s exhibit – which coincides with the eagerly awaited opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. – quietly but provocatively sets up the show with a scattering of casually racist pop-cultural objects that were once pretty much everywhere, providing cookie-jar comfort to everyday white lives, and still can be found: jockey lawn statuettes; cheerful fat-lipped ceramic figurines. They help set the stage for one of Warhol’s two pieces in the show, his 1981 screen print Mammy, which fascinatingly plays with and defies the stereotype, lending a kind of quizzical dignity to a comfortably submissive icon of the white imagination. And Arvie Smith’s two big 2006 paintings, collectively titled Manumissions (they could easily fit into his current APEX exhibition, through November 13 at the Portland Art Museum), play on his smart, satiric, almost gleefully horrific view of history: a carnival atmosphere at the scene of a lynching. Check the news, and, if you can stomach them, the spatter of crude anonymous comments below online stories about Black Lives Matter rallies and the latest police shootings of unarmed black men. We really aren’t far removed.
Goodwin is adept at creative pairings – Bearden’s intimately domestic 1983 color litho Autumn of the Rooster, for instance, with a trio of earlier, similarly folkish paintings from the 1920s-40s by the multi-talented painter, actor and puppeteer Ralph Chessé, who spent his latter years in southern Oregon. Like Bearden’s, Chessé’s scenes are both everyday and something more: a casual outdoor meeting, a man collecting bottles, a black gravedigger uncovering Yorick’s skull from a scene in Hamlet. They have a rough homespun texture that seems to rise from the soil: art created from clay. Post-Wolcott’s 1939 photo Negro Man Climbing Stairs to Movie Theatre, Belzoni, Mississippi – he is headed up the outdoor stairwell to the coloreds-only balcony of a segregated movie house – is paired neatly with Damon Winter’s 2012 color photo President Obama Ascending Air Force One, which compositionally reflects another black man, under very different circumstances, making a lonely journey up a steep set of stairs. Together, the two photos create a ripple effect that more than doubles their individual impact.
Photography forms a vital core to the exhibition, providing a rigorous truth-telling that interplays with works in other media, such as Glenn Ligon’s Negro Sunshine etchings and Shimoyama’s large and lusty Adjusting to the Luminous Black, an iconic portrait that stretches almost seven feet across and combines oil paint, glitter, rhinestones, and collage. The Native American artist Zig Jackson’s memorial photos to Emmitt Till, the 14-year-old boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for possibly flirting with a white woman, and to the murder victims of 1964’s Freedom Summer of black voter registration, also in Mississippi, create a quiet and eloquent solidarity of the dispossessed. And Marian Carrasquero’s Police Car, from this year, is a spellbinding image of two young black kids, on a city street, playing in a toy police car. Given the current state of affairs it’s a chilling shot: from one angle just two kids play-acting at being grown-up heroes, and from another reverberating with the knowledge that contact between black people and police officers can result in harassment and even death. It’s a two-edged sword that black Americans live with daily.
Tucked in a corner of the gallery are three nature photos by New York artist Kris Graves. Two are of Mount Rainier, with fog rolling in. The third, in the center, is a landscape of ice and snow from Iceland that is almost all whited out. A lone dark figure stands in the middle, barely distinguishable but determinedly there, enduring against the all-but-obliterating flurry of white. Taken on its own, the photo – Matthew, Iceland, 2013 – is an intriguing study in nature and design. In the context of The Soul of Black Art it becomes a metaphor, a statement of persistence and disappearance, speaking to the other art in the room, bouncing ideas back and forth, joining the conversation, gaining new meanings. The soul of this show’s black art, as it turns out, is multiple, and talkative, and bigger in its whole than in its parts.