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Art Review : 'The Black West Series' Sets Record Straight

August 29, 1986|KRISTINE McKENNA

Joe Sam attempts to correct history books with his "The Black West Series," which makes the point that not every black American of the 19th Century could be found south of the Mason-Dixon line polishing Miss Scarlett's silver.

Unbeknownst to the movie industry (which has done more than its share to foster misconceptions regarding world history), there were black cowpokes, rustlers, prospectors and rodeo stars. "The Black West Series," on view through Sunday at Brockman Gallery, is out to set the record straight.

Cloaking his lesson in historical revisionism in a playful visual style that makes his point of view easy to accept, this San Francisco artist occasionally allows his highly sophisticated sense of composition to upstage his themes; Sam's pictures are so much fun to look at that you almost don't care what they're about. Combining the yeasty vibrancy of folk art, Pop Art slang, scavenged debris (including entire articles of clothing which are attached to the canvas), and the flashy illustrative style of Milton Glaser, Sam's work has the dusty, abandoned quality of a scuffed-up shoe left on the highway; at the same time, it feels extremely slick. Consequently, his characters--"Arizona Joe, Indian Scout," "Stagecoach Mary," "Fur Trapper George Bonga"--come off as quaint, slightly glamorous and not quite real.

In addition to pieces drawn from the "Black West Series," Sam shows a number of portraits of famous black Americans such as Gregory Hines, Patti La Belle and Aretha Franklin as well as a spooky chess set that resonates with the voodoo power of a Ouija board. Fashioned out of unfired clay, straw, pine cones and scraps of metal, it's a rather unsettling interpretation of the stately old game. The most perplexing piece in the show, however, is a large double portrait titled "Purple Color" which was done after the adorable and massively popular flick that's done so much to advance interracial understanding.

Painted in a manner evocative of Larry Rivers, the piece is virtually impossible to decipher. Two crudely drawn female figures stand side by side beneath the names Shug Avery and Celie, which are scribbled across the top of the canvas. With the pop-eyed faces typical of drawings by children, the two figures look confused and slightly dismayed. Is the painting a tribute to "The Color Purple" or is it a spoof? That Sam works with so light a touch as to leave us guessing is a measure of his talent.

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