Another Country is the title of a renowned James Baldwin novel and the term also describes the history of African-American art in the last 100 years. It is a hidden history and a singular esthetic, best embodied in Beauford Delaney's portraits, Romare Bearden's collages of southern life and Jacob Lawrence’s "Migration" series.
This work can be described as a one-dimensional pictorialism in service to a multi-dimensional human story. It is reductive, tribally colorful, tightly semaphorical, integrated within the picture plane, both mournful and hopeful in theme. How remarkable that new exhibitions boldly reference and develop the work of these black masters: Mickalene Thomas at Lehmann Maupin and William Villalongo at Susan Inglett.
Each of these young artists borrows the cutout motif from Bearden -- Thomas assembling paint, plastic and linoleum on a wooden base and Villalongo cutting out colorful plasticine and mirrors into biomorphic forms. While the rhythm of their visual inspiration is distinctly abstract, and even advances the busy praxis of a painter like Dana Schutz, the theme of Mickie and Will is figurative and historical, with Villalongo paying visual tribute to icons as varied as Dred Scott and Queen Nefertiti while Thomas is grounded in the voluptuary of Angela Davis and Pam Grier.
What these artists are doing is asserting the primacy (yet again!) of African transcendence as the true signifier of American authenticity. That they do not feel the need to break free from the stark profiles of Lawrence or the raw visages of Delaney demonstrates the continued ignorance of the art elites to African-American artists of all eras, such as Carl Holty, Faith Ringgold and Renee Cox, among a cast of thousands.
Just as America would finally elect a black President when no sane white fella would want the job, so the Chelsea art district advances Thomas and Villalongo when the market for its art has dried up. Both of these artists have waited five or six years for a prominent New York solo show. In work that is colorful, thoughtful, historically necessary and deeply respectful of their forebears, Mickey and Will have delivered. The question is, "Will you?"
Mickalene Thomas, "She’s Come Undone!," Mar. 26-May 2, 2009, at Lehman Maupin, 540 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
William Villalongo, Mar. 26-May 2, 2009, at Susan Inglett Gallery, 522 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).