The visual language of Gordon Parks

The Gordon Parks exhibit, on view now at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, is a exceptional body of work. The collection, that of Alicia Keys and Kasseem Dean (also known as Swizz Beatz), gives an overview of many different areas of Park’s work, and lets the eloquence of his imagery shine.

Left to right: Consulting curator Maurice Berger, Radcliffe Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Alicia Keys, Swizz Beats, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. (Photograph from the Harvard Gazette)

The Cooper Gallery deserves praise for the show is beautifully lit, and curated in a manner that draws the viewer through the exhibit, leaving one eager to both linger in front of each image and to see more at the same time.

The first photograph seen when arriving is a reimagined “American Gothic” entitled “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.” Cleaning woman Ella Watson imitates the iconic painting as she stands holding a broom and a mop rather than a pitchfork, with an American flag behind her rather than buildings.

Parks’ image depicts Watson on her own; she is both the masculine and feminine energy in this image: she wears glasses and stares unabashedly at the artist with her mouth grimly set, like the male figure in the original American Gothic. Yet, Watson is also in feminine attire with her slim waist on display, and details such as she sleeves of her dress. Parks melds both male and female into one persona and has her stand beneath the American flag, rather than in front of a traditional farmhouse and barn.

Her placement in front of the flag, her head is perfectly bisecting it, seems to imply that Parks wished to make a strong statement about either the working class, persons of color or perhaps both. Parks gives Watson a placement of importance, clearly well thought-out and suggests value the artist places on Watson’s contribution.

As one moves further into the exhibition, one is confronted over and over again, either with images making reference to art (such as above), literature (like his Invisible Man series based on Ralph Ellison’s book) or to current events of the time. All provide fodder for visually stunning and thought-provoking images.

Hands

Given the fact that Ella Watson’s hands remained invisible in the reimagining of American Gothic, it’s ironic to note that the first series of works in this show seem to focus on hands. Fingers point, hands reach out or they clutch objects, and we the viewers and left to interpret meaning.

In the image below, a hand reaches out from a pool of water, seemingly drowning. the fingers and arm stretch out of a rippling reflection – searching for assistance. The photograph’s grey-green cast contributes to this sinister moment with its otherworldly palette. The viewer is left with just this one piece of the story – just one frame in what was so a much longer tale. It can leave one short of breath.

Gordon Parks, Untitled.
New York, New York. 1957
Archival Pigment Print

A more subtle hand gesture, yet again unsettling, awaits just across from it: a child is presented with two baby dolls in two adult hands: one black and one white. He gestures subtly to the white one, seemingly selecting it. This image was from “Doll Test” where a psychologist was studying internalized racism. Parks eloquently captures this significant and heartbreaking moment where a black child chooses a white doll rather than a black one, in a single photograph.

A piece from Park’s Life series “The Atmosphere of Crime” series shows another eloquent hand; one that elegantly dangles a cigarette through prison bars. Yet, his other hand grips the bars tightly.

The timeless nature of this image, simple elegant hands, blocks of color, and a shadow slanting across the wall make it seem like it could almost be a photograph. It could be an image from any age: as much from 70 years ago as from today.

To delve deeper into the sociological side of this image, the disproportionate number of people of color who are incarcerated, even today make this piece timeless.

For context, find the tables below. While, dear reader, you probably didn’t need me to point out that there was an imbalance between the black population as a portion of the percentage incarcerated, nor that this is a long-standing problem (dating back to Park’s day), these figures do help to clearly illustrate the starkness of this disparity.

“Incarceration in the United States” Wikipedia
Race of Prisoners Admitted to State and Federal Institutions, 1926-86
By Patrick A. Langan, Ph.D.

Here we are, almost seventy years after many of the photographs were taken any yet it feels as though some of them could have been taken yesterday: the same issues remain and the imagery is timeless in its beauty.

Certainly, “timeless” is an adjective that cannot be applied to all of Park’s work. He has recorded history with his lens as well: the portraits he has taken give glimpses of both powerful and unguarded moments amongst historical icons. It’s a delight to see such individuals such as Muhammad Ali recorded at the height of his career in rich black and white photographs. Malcolm X, photographed emerging from darkness while he speaks, is also another inspired piece.

A selection of photographs devoted to Muhammad Ali
Malcolm X

While Park’s portraits of celebrities are wonderful, personally I find the works that focus on less well-known individuals is where Park’s artistic eye really shows through.

Park’s focus on social justice and recording the Jim Crow era in the South is both a historical artifact and an example of excellence in photography. These photographs feature the every person living their life, and allow us all to project ourselves into their reality.

They are also more accessible to a younger audience in terms of helping them to grasp the injustices of the Jim Crow era – and sharing artwork with a younger generation – and particularly political and socially conscious artwork is something incredibly important. The second Parks blog post (coming soon) will focus on these photographs, and also how to share them with children. 

Jules Arthur’s Work for Resilient Sisterhood Project

On May 11th I had the honor of attending the Resilient Sisterhood‘s event entitled “A Celebration to Remember Our Foremothers in Gynecology.” This may sound like a strange event to have even the most tenuous connection with art… but stick with me.

First of all, let’s start with what the Resilient Sisterhood Project is. In a nutshell, they are a Boston-area group dedicated to reproductive equality. Click the links to learn more about them and about the concept of reproductive equality via at New York Times article that explains how the US is full of inequality in the health system: particularly for black women.

The event I attended was filled with amazing music and eloquent speakers all addressing the topic of the history of medicine and the hidden contributions of women. The focus was particularly on Dr. J. Marion Sims, who experimented on black women as he perfected certain gynecological techniques (such as repairing a fistula) and inventing the speculum. I also learned that he is the physician with the most statues honoring him in the United States, yet is also known to have practiced medicine under horribly cruel medical conditions in an completely unethical manner, with only questionable consent from his patients, as he experimented on slaves.

This NPR segment sums up the situation neatly.

Sims also kept quite good records. He, however, only names three of the female slaves in his writings. As such, these three women, Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy, are used a proxy to represent all the women who underwent experimentation at his hand. To properly honor all three of these women, the Resilient Sisterhood Project commissioned three paintings by Jules Arthur. The unveiling of these works was the culmination of the event on May 11th.

These are beautiful works and deserve to be seen and honored, both for their workmanship and for the story that they help tell. While I could never do as good a job as Jules Arthur describing his own work, I am delighted to attempt to analyze aspects of of these paintings in my own particular way, bringing my personal perspective.

Jules Arthur, Mothers of Gynecology

Supporters and patrons of the Resilient Sisterhood Project ended up commissioning three works altogether once they had seen the amazing strength of the first piece (pictured above). This piece is reminiscent of much of Arthur’s work, as can be seen on his website. His pieces tend to feature shoulder-up portraits, done in a circular frame. This style is often called a “tondo” in the art history community, a derivative of the the Italian word for round, “rotondo.”

The details in this work of art really help to bring it alive and give it the depth of meaning that Arthur sought. The piece is made on a solid plank of wood with metal corners. The tondo has a functional yet decorative metal frame with rivets. Lace, or a worn wallpaper, embellishes the top of the piece, masking the distressed wooden planks. The blue in the wallpaper echoes the same color found in the kerchief adorning the head of one of the women in the portraits, and the scalloped edge of the lace worn by another seems to echo the lace wallpaper background as well. These details, functional yet with a graceful flair, beautiful yet slightly worn, echo the beauty of the women, and bring into relief the cruelty of the story that told in the box at the bottom.

Detail of Mothers of Gynecology

The bottom of the first piece shows a portrait of Dr. Sims, samples of the original Sims Speculum and other gynecological tools, and the “The History of Medicine,” by Robert Thom, painted circa 1952 which purports to show the slave Anarcha. This sort of “box” that could exist in a cabinet of curiosities serves to ground Arthur’s painting in reality, reminding the viewer of the reasons for which the portrait above was painted. The sharp edges of the square box, and of the items painted to look pinned inside give it a haphazard look. This is purposeful as it parallels the questionable manner in which Sims completed his medical experiments. The medical instruments add to the unpalatable reality of it all.

The second piece to be unveiled is pictured below. In the dying light of dusk we see two female slaves looking after a third, with Sims standing in the shadows. The dynamic placement of the three main figures creates a religious nature to the work, where one could argue the the purple and red-clothed woman takes the role of a Jesus figure attempting a healing. The triangular nature with an ill woman on her left and the woman in blue on her right also suggests either the Holy Trinity or perhaps even a modified Pieta.

Jules Arthur, A Bond of Sisterhood

Taking the Pieta concept further, if we compare Arthur’s work above with Agnolo Bronzino’s Renaissance work below, one can see many similarities in color and form. One might note that both main figures are draped in purple, and there is a triangular placement of the three, as well as the fact that dark shadows lurk in the background in both, intimating the presence of evil nearby. All these aspects suggest the classical nature of Arthur’s second work in this series.

Agnolo Bronzino, Pietà, oil, c. 1530

Despite the classical nature of the second piece, it’s also important to recognize it as innovative as well. Sims’s slaves, in this painting were also acting as his midwives and nurses. And, in that sense, they were given more agency to heal and “change history” than the Virgin Mary or a disciple could after Jesus’s crucifixion. These strong women in Arthur’s work nursed each other through moments of extreme suffering wrought by their creator, over and over again. For example, Anarcha underwent at least 30 (!) surgeries at the hand of Sims before her fistula was repaired, all without the benefit of any type of anesthesia. (1)

With such medical experiments frequently visited upon them, it’s no surprise that the 21st century brought a desire from many to remove his statue from Central Park, where it had stood for 124 years, as depicted in the third image.

Jules Arthur, Sisterly Resilience

The three named women are shown looking down as the statue is removed, women and men of all races and from all time periods contribute to its destruction. This piece represents the culmination of many years of hard work to bring the truth of Sims’ story to light.

Hopefully with the continued work of the Resilient Sisterhood Project and so many other groups dedicated to the reproductive rights of women of color, this story will continue to be known. We cannot turn back the clock: women do benefit from what was learned by the horrific non-consensual medical experiments. However, what we can do is sing the praises of the brave women who underwent these procedures – over and over again – rather than lionizing the perpetrator.

Thank you RSP and Jules Arthur for helping to make this story more widely understood.

A Visit to the Frieze Art Fair in NYC, part II

This is the second of two posts of the Frieze Art Fair I attended on May 5th.

Certainly not a “diamond in the rough” in terms of galleries or artists, I still must note that John Chamberlain‘s sculptures at the famed Gagosian gallery were nonetheless a standout for me.

photo credit: Artsy.net

These sculptures caught my eye from afar. They are created from the remnants of automobiles, some pieces still stamped with the makers. Looking at them, one is entranced by the sinuous forms each individual piece creates, and the beauty of each sculpture as a whole. 

Photo credit: Hypebeast

Chamberlain’s artful genius is evident as he manages to make his work look singularly natural, untouched, and almost easy in a way that only comes with true expertise. And to imagine that could be said of “crushed” steel seems absurd, yet I find it rings true for me. 

At the same time, certain lines and pieces of the steel meld together to make almost human-like forms: for instance I found repetitive pieces of steel welded together that reminded me of fingers. The imagery of these half-human hands in his pieces fascinated me, as I began to see those “fingers” in different sizes showing up in many of his works: one can see some at the apex of the piece pictured at the top, for instance. In his sculptures fingers may clutch the steel, pull it back, or rest at the top of the folded, twisted metal. Always placed differently, they gave a certain humanoid aspect to each work, making me wonder if some sort of robot creature might have wanted to escape the crushed steel. 

The dynamics between the reflective, matte and white metals in this series also create tension as one’s eye shifts from what seems to be a used, recycled material to pieces of perfectly reflective steel. 

Chamberlain’s sculptures are some of the works that made me stop and think at Frieze. And those are often my favorite works. Here are some of the questions they elicited in my (always inquiring) mind: how much do they weigh? How did he source the materials? Did he go to a junkyard? Elsewhere? How exactly does he crush the metal? How does he work, adding the pieces together: is there a central ballast of sort around which he adds the steel? And where would such a piece find the perfect spot in a home? I could picture them in the center of a foyer, well-lit at the end of a long hallway… or perhaps even outside if the artist permitted it.

While I don’t have all the answers, artwork with such high level of workmanship and detail and that leaves me with questions are what I love best. I look forward to having the opportunity to see more of Chamberlain’s work. 

Visiting Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art

While my art blog may be new, this blog post, borrowed from Beacon Gallery’s blog can be considered my real first personal art blog post.

Yes, I write all the others over there too… but that one went beyond marketing and into the realm of personal experience for me. Hence, I’m posting it here, as my first post. Many more to come.

This was originally published on October 27th 2017.

Last weekend I was delighted to visit Chicago’s MCA on its 50th anniversary weekend – a happy accident that meant that my visit was even more meaningful and fun than it would have been otherwise!

IMG_0847
Alexander Calder’s work

Wandering the galleries and taking in art from Alexander Calder (above) to Amanda Williams (below), there was something new and fascinating to see around every corner.

A highlight of my visit was hearing Larry Fields, a prominent Chicago art collector, as well as generous donor and board member of the MCA speak. He presented a few pieces that he and his wife have donated to the museum. Omar Kholeif, Senior Curator and Director of Global Initiatives at the MCA, engaged in an informal question-and-answer session with Fields. Together they discussed, amongst other topics, Glenn Ligon’s works and the concept of collecting in general. Fields said, “Collecting is a way to understand the times and world you’re living in.”Many of Fields’ comments stayed with me. He talked about how the “DNA” of any museum is its collection (true for museums and for galleries – we know who we are by what we present) and encouraged visitors to try to engage with at least one piece of artwork during each visit. He also promoted the idea of bringing children to museums. This is a good way to ensure that there is a future audience for museums – by exposing children to art and to museums when they are young.

Ed-Ruscha-MAKE-NEW-HISTORY

Field’s final thoughts were inspirational and forward-looking. Discussing the book he had held throughout the presentation – Ed Ruscha’s “Make New History” as pictured above – Fields presented the concept of “making one’s own history,” and how each of us does so every day. Fields encouraged the audience to dream big and forge ahead with our unique histories in the making… Just what we are doing at Beacon Gallery!

A Visit to the Frieze Art Fair in NYC, part I

On May 5th I had the opportunity to visit 2019’s Frieze Art Fair in New York City. This was the eighth edition of this fair, originally founded in London. While I’ve attended many art fairs over the years, this was my first time at Frieze.

An image of 2019's Frieze Art Fair in NYC.
Photo Credit: James Nova, flikr.com

Due to my family and gallery commitments, I was only able to make it on Sunday, the final day of the fair. Personally I prefer to visit a fair earlier in the week. The first few days everything feels a bit fresher somehow: the gallery owners haven’t been completely exhausted by the hordes of visitors yet, the leaflets/brochures/postcards haven’t been pawed over, and the temporary digs have yet to be tread on by thousands upon thousands of feet.

Despite visiting on the final afternoon, a day so windy that the sides of the tent shook, Frieze was a delightful experience. The show felt well-curated and there was a generous amount of high-quality art on display. Yes, like any show, there were a few things that caused me to shake my head, but I was generally impressed.

While perhaps organized-looking on the map below, the layout of the fair felt labyrinthine on the inside.

Map courtesy of Frieze.com

The fair was divided up into sections (denoted by color) with different themes.

Pieces

Works I choose to write about may not be the “Best of Frieze” But after a week, these are the works and experiences that have stuck with me the longest.

One of the most memorable areas I visited was the “Outsider Art” section entitled “The Doors of Perception” curated by Javier Téllez in collaboration with the Outsider Art Fair. This section felt like an “art fair within an art fair” to me. With towering gray walls, one entered this specific section of the show as a mouse does a maze and immediately was lost in an experience altogether different from the rest of Frieze.

Photo Credit: Outsider Art Gallery

Curated with its own specific ethos and theme, Téllez created an experience that had both a cohesive feel yet spanned a large diversity of styles. Galleries and artists work was presented differently and one couldn’t help but admire the obvious craftsmanship that went into so many of the pieces.

Photo Credit: Outsider Art Fair, Taken at Frieze 2019

Falling somewhere between folk art and art naif, outsider art shines a light on what happens when raw talent isn’t necessarily moulded to fit the mores of the traditional art world, nor inspired by the canon of art history. Click on the link to read more.

Noviadi Angkasapura, “Untitled” 2017, ballpoint pen and graphite on paper, courtesy Cavin Morris Gallery, shown at Frieze Art Fair 2019 as part of “Doors of Perception”

“Doors of Perception” focused on pieces specifically that seem to touch upon religion, mysticism, or daydream. The excellent curation by Téllez evoked a certain devotional quality in many of the pieces – whether it was the artist as a slave to his work, with an incredible amount of detail, or literal devotion such as in Guo Fengyi’s pieces (in the photograph below: the longest scroll and the one to its right) where her work were often inspired by her relationship with Qi Gong and other Eastern philosophies.

Photo Credit: Outsider Art Fair, Taken at Frieze 2019
Guo Fengyi, Courtesy of The New Yorker

Work such as Guo’s with its incredible detail and attention to color and mark making, creates a luminous piece that is both destabilizing in its rejection of traditional forms of artwork and yet attractive in its ethereal quality. Placed at the end of one of the more spacious gallery areas, it helped to anchor spaces that often felt cluttered and lacking focus, despite the fascinating art they contained.

The density of much of the artwork plus the manner in which it was hung in tight proximity meant that appreciating it all was a challenge. A bit more space between pieces would have allowed the work to breathe more easily.

Janko Domsic (1917-1983) Untitled. n.d. 12 x 16 in. ballpoint pen on paper. Courtesy of La Fabuloserie, Paris
Janko Domsic (1917-1983) Untitled. n.d. 12 x 16 in. ballpoint pen on paper. Courtesy of La Fabuloserie, Paris

Yet, as a gallery owner, of course I understand: one is only given a certain amount of square footage to display the work. These shows are expensive. I do not begrudge the ways in which things were hung, I just hope that next year Frieze will consider adding another 18 inches of width to each hallway in this area (in the sincerest of hopes that they will keep this concept/area), and that a slightly increased margin between artworks will be considered, even for those hung in groupings/salon style.

Overall Frieze was a fantastic show, and the Outsider Art was a memorable piece of it!