National Black Fine Art Show, Feb. 3-6, 2005, at the Puck Building, 295 Lafayette Street, New York, N.Y. 10012
The ninth annual National Black Fine Art Show returned to the Puck Building in Soho last weekend, just in time to usher in Black History Month. The only art fair of its kind, this year the show hosted 38 international exhibitors of African-American, African and Caribbean art. While the print works of Romare Bearden (1912-1988) were available in large numbers, as one might expect, the show also included plenty of new work by a younger generation.
The smallest but by far the strongest Bearden work on display was to be found at Martha Henry Inc. Fine Art from New York City. The only Bearden collage available at the show, Martinique (12 x 10.5 in., 1980) is a dense tropical scene of lush pinks and green growth, barely contained by the edges of the work. Posed in a small clearing is a semi-nude woman with one exposed breast, incongruously wearing a pink boa. If this work were a travel poster, my flight would be booked.
Revolution, a gallery in Ferndale, Mich., had on hand a humorous painting entitled Condoleezza. This modestly sized oil on linen (14 x 11 in., 2004) by the artist PeterWilliams (b. 1952) is a single abstracted portrait composed of flowing biomorphic shapes, an eye like a fried egg and a comical row of teeth; it's one in a series of political caricatures by the artist. Williams, who teaches painting at the University of Delaware, was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. His works are characterized by adept paint handling and a sophisticated sense of color. Condoleezza is priced at $4,000.
A newcomer to this show, the New Providence Art and Antiques Gallery is run by a Bahamian dealer who specializes in the self-taught artists who are represented in the island's National Museum of Art in Nassau. One showcased artist was Amos Ferguson (b. 1920), who is often referred to as "the father of Bahamian art" and recently had a street in Nassau named after him. Born in Exuma, Ferguson initially came to Nassau as a young man to paint houses. It is with that enamel house paint, applying flat, brilliant colors on cardboard, that Ferguson made his dazzling expressions of island life.
A major exhibition of Ferguson's work toured the U.S. and Europe for two years in the 1980s, originating at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford in 1987. Ferguson, who no longer paints, claimed to work "by faith, not by sight." The largest painting on hand, Long Leg Lizzie (1990), depicts a reclining woman and baby framed by billowing polka dot curtains. You can just sense the warm breeze. Ferguson's works are in the collections of the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe.
Kenkeleba House, an East Village institution, featured a couple of works by New York native Adelaide Lawson Gaylor (1889-1986). A student at the Art Students League who was active in the Harlem Renaissance, Gaylor was not considered black by her family or descendants, according to the gallery, though she is listed in the Bio-bibliographical Dictionary of Afro-American Artists. Her participation in the inaugural Tanner Art League exhibition of 1922, organized by African-American artists in Washington, D.C., in honor of African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, seems puzzling in this regard. Certainly tradition, the tenor of her times and issues of perception could have been factors in how she chose to portray herself. It is impossible that she was unconcerned with the issue of color, as her works focus repeatedly on people of varying color and ethnicity.
In any case, Gaylor's work is strong and it is here. Kenkeleba director Corrine Jennings hazarded that "it is possible that the artist was indeed light-skinned enough to pass', and thus chose to do so." An earth-tone oil painting on canvas, Three Bathers (n.d., 30 x 24 in.) depicts three seated females (including a blond child in the lap of a cocoa-hued adult who looks directly at the viewer). The composition is simple and effective; the three figures seem to be sharing their time together at the beach with a certain amount of wariness.
The artist, writer and theorist Olu Oguibe (b. 1964) was born in Nigeria, educated in London and lives in New York. His artworks are generally associated with ideas of misunderstanding, social justice and loss. At the art show, the Joysmith Gallery of Memphis had Oguibe's simple but striking acrylic on canvas painting Cocoyams, a diagrammatic image of tropical fruit in orange and white on a flat black surface. The subject shares a single visual plane and is instantly recognizable as brimming with life and abundance.
Also on hand were works by Purvis Young (b. 1943), a self-taught artist from Miami whose work is more usually seen at Outsider Art venues -- it's nice to see Young making the leap to a broader, if equally limiting, category. A product of the street (and its vices), Young's paintings on found scraps of wood reflect a recycled approach to art and life. The largest work on hand in the Batista Gallery booth was seemingly pieced together from smaller existing works, as two of the collaged panels carry their own signatures. This "make-do" approach is consistent with the pieced-together frame, which surrounds and loosely ties the work into a unified whole.
Dozens of small works on paper, made in 2002 by the writer, political radical and New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka (b. 1934), were on view at the booth of the Hatch-Billops Collection, which bills itself as Archivists of Black American Cultural History. Unfortunately, these works seem to be "celebrity art," and display only modest talent and visual dexterity. At $350 and up, they were priced to go. The gallery does not seem to take these faux-naive works seriously, so why should we?
The Teacher, a powerful genre painting by Palmer Hayden (1890-1973) available at the M. Hanks Gallery from Santa Monica, shows visually something that words do not easily capture. A Caucasian teacher points to and presents Africa to a group of black, brown and white school children. I am indeed afraid to hear what she is saying.
While one hopes that society's boundaries can some day be erased, eliminating the need for exhibitions catering to artists grouped by race, for the moment this show fills a void resulting from the exclusionary practices all too common in the field at present.
JOHN DRURY is a New York based artist, writer and teacher.