Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Arts

African-American art show from BoA opens at Museum of Fine Arts

ST. PETERSBURG

The Bank of America art collection has been ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the best corporate examples in the world. We have gotten to know it in our region through its Art in Our Communities program, through which the bank has lent exhibitions to area museums at no cost. Most recently, the Tampa Museum of Art had a show of post-revolution Mexican artists, for example.

The latest exhibition to arrive from BoA is "Mixing Metaphors: The Aesthetic, the Social and the Political in African-American Art." This one is a bit different from many that are organized and rotated through museums by the bank, in that scholar, photographer and independent curator Deborah Willis put it together.

She divided the 90 paintings, prints, drawings, photographs and mixed media works by 36 artists into three categories: Reflections and Likeness, Constructing Place and Rituals of Existence. The show is terrific, though I think the categories are sometimes arbitrary and I don't understand suggesting that they are visual metaphors. These works are mostly straightforward in their intent. The subtitle is more illustrative, describing the works as representative of aesthetic, social and political African-American art.

The preponderant medium is photography. (She is a photographer after all.) There are examples from Ernest C. Withers' I Am a Man portfolio that documented the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. They are moving testaments to the courage black men, women and young people possessed to protest and exercise their rights in the segregated South.

Other photographers chose to portray a middle class and affluent members of the black community. Henry Clay Anderson, who had a studio in Greenville, Miss., recorded proms and weddings. Earlier, in the 1930s, James VanDerZee had immortalized Harlem and its glamorous lifestyle, epitomized by two beautiful people in raccoon coats against a backdrop of a fabulous convertible and a row of brownstones. Noted contemporary photographer and MacArthur Foundation "genius" award winner Carrie Mae Weems isn't, as the former three are, a documentarian. Her work is full of social commentary, especially about black women and their misrepresentation in popular culture and the media.

The same could be said of Earlie Hudnall Jr.'s 1993 gelatin silver print of an adolescent male dressed in the hip-hop uniform of low-riding jeans, backward baseball cap, exposed underwear and gold accessories. But it also has much in common stylistically with Lawrence Finney's and James Biggers' works in nearby galleries. There are allusions in the three to much earlier art. Just as Hudnall poses his subject in a way similar to ancient Greek statuary, so does Biggers invoke ancient classicism in Four Seasons. In the lithograph, four monumentally proportioned black women stand in doorways like columns on an Attic temple. The shotgun houses are arranged with the same symmetry, capped by roofs that are evocative of a temple. Finney, too, proportions his figures monumentally in Caretaker. In the oil painting, a man holds a boy on his lap, shielding him with a protective hand. The treatment of their bodies suggests Renaissance paintings, and the dramatic lighting is Baroque.

Romare Bearden and Benny Andrews share affinities as well, though they aren't in the same galleries either. In The Rehearsal (1997), Andrews paints and collages a family gathering in which an older woman (probably the grandmother), dressed for church, sings from a hymnal with one young man while another plays on an upright piano. The painting is simple but nuanced, its vivid colors and the dignified joy of its subjects a counterpoint to its spare composition. Bearden, too, represented by two prints, is a master of the domestic scene as social commentary.

Willis, the curator, has assembled a melange of famous and not-so-famous names and lots of individuality to make her point that art by African-Americans has contributed a lot to the modern and contemporary art world and to our understanding and appreciation in a historical context.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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