Paul Keene

Black art: a neverending story

The Portland Art Museum's survey of African American art "Constructing Identity" tells a sprawling and many-sided tale

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.

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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.

Frederick D. Jones (American, 1914–2004), Untitled (Woman with a Fish), ca. 1945–1950, oil on canvas, 12 x 10 in. © Frederick Jones

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.

Continues…