Ralph Chessé

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.

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At Upfor, the Soul of Black Art

The gallery's third-anniversary show, curated by collector John Goodwin, digs to the roots of black art in America and contemporary cultural divides

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.

Arvie Smith's "Manumissions," left, and Devan Shimoyama's "Adjusting to the uminous Black." Collection of John Goodwin and Michael-Jay Robinson. Upfor Gallery.

Arvie Smith’s “Manumissions,” left, and Devan Shimoyama’s “Adjusting to the Luminous Black.” Collection of John Goodwin and Michael-Jay Robinson. Upfor Gallery.

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.

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