Sunday, January 29, 2006
By Tom Patterson
Series of four exhibitions blends visual-art expressions into a mosaic
The concept behind "Blurring Racial Barriers," an exhibition at Winston-Salem State University's Diggs Gallery through March 17, is commendable. It brings together works by artists from varied racial and cultural backgrounds in order to promote social harmony and mutual understanding.
The first in a local series of four such exhibitions, it's well worth seeing. But it's also very uneven. It illustrates the difficulty of balancing an agenda of inclusion with rigorous curatorial standards. Forty-one artists are represented by 46 pieces in a variety of styles. They range from sophisticated to not-so-charmingly amateurish. I'll leave it to other viewers to identify the negligible pieces and focus my comments on some of the more substantial pieces.
Given the history and traditional racial makeup of the Triad, where most of these works originated, it's not surprising that many of them - including some of the best - deal with black-white race relations and related themes.
For example, Glen A. Johnson's Best Friends in the 1950s is a small watercolor. Two little girls - one white, one black - stand at adjoining water fountains labeled "COLORED" and "WHITE." The white girl is at the "colored" fountain, though, and the black girl at the "white" one. Their mischievous grins signal that the mix-up is intentional. On the wall above them, a directional "SHOES" sign indicates that the setting is a department store, where racially segregated facilities were common before the mid-1960s.
The civil-disobedience campaign that prompted new federal laws against such segregation is the subject of Ray Martin's Prize Eyes. This mixed-media piece in a prevailing black-and-white color scheme pays homage to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement. Its two black-framed panels are collaged with 1960s photos of King and crowds of civil-rights demonstrators, interspersed with the hand-scrawled word "FREEDOM" and fragments of maps depicting Africa and the American South. The two panels, in turn, flank a partly unflurled U.S. flag. The star-studded blue rectangle and red stripes have been painted black. With its chaotic composition and stark color contrast, the piece reflects the turbulence and divisiveness of the era.
James Huff engages in a Contemplation of the Future in his oil painting. Two versions of a beautiful, noble-looking black woman's head in left profile are juxtaposed with African ritual masks and abstract motifs surrounding an image of stylized blue ocean waves. This richly colored painting conjures a mood of serene hope while engaging the theme of a voyage to unknown destinations.
Huff's wife, Earnestine Huff, who died last month of complications from cancer treatment, is represented by an intriguing acrylic and pastel drawing titled Wisdom of Ages (Baga). The subtitle refers to a coming-of-age ceremony that takes place in a community in Sierra Leone.
The image is a group portrait of three all-blue figures whose stylized masks represent those worn during the ceremony. Virtually identical except for slight variations in height, they're dramatically posed in profile against a backdrop of mist-enveloped mountains.
Juan Logan challenges the financial exploitation of young black men's athletic prowess in his wall-mounted installation titled The Draft. Three large human-head shapes cut out of black tarpaper are arrayed on a wall below halo-like basketball hoops without nets.
Stenciled onto the heads are labels designating ages 13, 15 and 17, and attached to their ears are numbered tags like those that identify cattle.
In his two-part series "The American Chess Set," Phillip K. Adams criticizes the exploitation of racial and cultural differences for military purposes. In one of its two custom-designed chess sets, titled Peace, black chess pieces face off against white ones on a red and blue chessboard. Close inspection reveals that the pieces are modeled after tanks, fighter jets and rockets, and most of them incorporate heraldic fleur-de-lis emblems in relief. The companion chess set, titled War, is identical except for its military color scheme - a green and tan board with pieces painted in nearly identical camouflage patterns.
Sculpture is combined with embroidery and videography in Terri Dowell-Dennis' installation titled Ritual, one of the show's two or three most ambitious and thematically compelling works. It centers on a wide, white ceramic bowl that rests on the floor so that its interior doubles as a video screen. Projected on it is a basin of water in which one person's hands are shown washing another's bare feet.
Dowell-Dennis' installation occupies a corner. On the two adjoining walls she has attached 19 bamboo towel rings. Draped over each ring is a white hand towel, and every other towel is embroidered with a different symbolic image or set of linguistic characters. Derived from different cultures, all of these images and characters denote concepts such as compassion, humility and unity.
Despite its share of slighter works, including a few that are only peripherally related to the show's theme, this exhibition is largely dominated by thoughtfully conceived, effectively made works.
Among other artists who have contributed pieces worthy of special mention are Scott Betz, Lesley Dill, Maya Freelon, Amy Funderburk, Raul Montero, Nelida M. Otero-Flatow, Terry Schupbach-Gordon, Virginia Shepley, Mitzi Shewmake and Anne Kesler Shields.
The remaining installments of the "Blurring Racial Boundaries" series are scheduled to be shown at the Salem Fine Arts Center (March 27-April 30), the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (May 5-June 18) and the Delta Arts Center (Sept. 17-Oct. 31).
The Diggs Gallery is on the lower level of the O'Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University. For more information phone 750-2458.
Published: January 29, 2006
Reprinted from the Winston-Salem Journal
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