When trying to fit in an art career that involves a fair degree of social media self promotion in the middle of a 50 hour a week work things are bound to fall through the cracks. That has been the case with this blog as of late. I meant to talk a little about the possibility of black abstraction several months ago after coming across an article in Artnews from 2013 called “The Changing Complex Profile of Black Abstract Painters“. My take away from the article was basically that the black artists featured often toiled for years and are only now encountering first rate success after years of dedicated work because of art-world attempts to rectify a focus from mostly white mostly male Western and Europeans artists and perspectives to a more global approach that reflects current tastes and realities.
Several artists I admire were featured including Odili Donald Odita , Shinique Smith and James Little. The article made me realize how little I knew personally about the world of black abstract art and about the contributions blacks have made to abstract art in general. There’s certainly a media component to this lack of familiarity but also to be honest a lack of curiosity that I wonder if is a common occurrence among people of color about this field of art.Odili Donald Odita, The Great Divide
Shinique Smith, Forever Strong
James Little, Static Square
What set me on this course of thought we’re two encounters I had in the spring, one down south at a university where I had the opportunity to present my work to undergrads and the other at a gallery reception in Eastern Pa. I had the fortunate opportunity to present my work for a possible public art commission at a Florida university in the first encounter, and during the Q and A portion of the first session a student said she favored work that was different but not too abstract because she didn’t want to think too hard about the artwork. In the second encounter a colleague recounted how a person-of-color head of a prominent cultural institution jealously guarded access to himself and his resources from my colleague until another equally prominent person-of-color recognized and surprising vouched for my friend. The implication being the cultural institution head did not think my colleague knew all the key movers and shakers in this select world and was not going to open up to someone he saw as unworthy of entry.
Both encounters were very different but they somehow stuck out in my mind as connected because they both featured people of color who prized status and simple novelty over a deeper connection or a unique perspective. This was my interpretation. I very much dislike simple solutions and feel we’re influenced and guided by multiple things in the world. It seems to me that the job of a artist is to complicate things a bit and give the viewer permission to be befuddled.
You know as I’m writing this I’m reminded of an experience that exemplifies what I mean perfectly. I may have spoken of this before here but if not here it goes. Many years ago back in graduate school at the University of Michigan I went to a lecture at the University Museum presented by Kara Walker. At the time Ms Walker was just beginning to gain mass exposure and success, and since she was young and recently out of art grad school and a person of color I naturally looked up to her. In the lecture however I found myself incredibly frustrated by her very evasive answers regarding the influences and meaning behind her controversial imagery. At the time I though black-sapphire-stereotyped silhouetted figures defecating on white slave-masters required an explanation, and that her lack of response seemed irresponsible a little juvenile and frankly somewhat combative. I now realize what she was fighting for was for the viewer to make they’re own interpretations, her reasons for making the work were her own and she was under no obligation to explain with words what she meant. The art was the explanation. Twenty years on and after a furtive career as a mostly abstract artist often used to giving cagey answers about my influences I can now say I understand perfectly what she was getting at. Answers are often not easily arrived at or is the point at all with artwork. Sometimes its all about the question.
Kara Walker, Conceptual Vector Silhouette
I think what makes the possibility of black abstraction such an opportunity for viewers especially viewers of color to take advantage of is the fact that blackness as expressed in this culture is such a construct, and a mostly negative one at that. What an opportunity to explore the turgid manufactured territory rife in the black experience the exploration of unrecognizable shapes and vivid colors set in nameless void spaces afford a black artist. Even when exploring more terrestrial subjects, or dealing with the business of identity directly, having to make artwork while working through a negative constructed space gives people of color an chance to redefine the worlds around them showing everyone the power of creativity and influence. I think we people of color that have to live through this constructed experience – that often feels like it has been inflicted on us – should invite abstract complicated thoughts ideas and art and not guard off the little doorways we’ve accumulated to greater access and power because that limits our ability to act as guides to other people behind us. There’s so many things I wanted to say on this subject and so many directions I could have gone with this but I’ll leave it here for now.
I have a metal-head studio mate at the Banana Factory named Doug Bohem who rocks out all the time when he’s in the studio. He actually strangely vacillates between headbanging and listening to hip hop acts, mostly The Roots it seems. Well in that spirit here are two selections I heard wafting from his space these last few weeks. From Helmet’s seminal album “Meantime” we have “F.B.L.A. II”, and from The Roots’s album “Phrenology” we have “Break You Off”.
Okay, I’ve been doing some exciting things in the studio that I’ve been inching to write about and so I hope to blog about developments there shortly. Until then do be well.