Ralph Ellison once described the blues as "a lyrical expression of personal catastrophe," and the same can be said of much of the work in "Celebrations: Sights & Sounds of Being."
A survey of work by 25 black American artists on view at USC's Fisher Gallery through Saturday, "Celebrations" addresses the issue of the black experience in America in a remarkably upbeat way. Centering on the themes of music, simple labor and the struggle for equal rights, the work resists erupting into bitterness and rage, choosing instead to speak in a dignified voice that's often profoundly sad. A charmingly sweet and wistful show, it is however not without its problems.
One could take issue with the ongoing ghettoization of black art, which is rarely seen outside the context of black-themed art shows, and has been systematically shut out of mainstream art history; shows such as this do little to change that. On the other hand, there's no denying that black art has its own very specific agenda.
"Celebrations"' curator Samella Lewis describes the artists in this show as having been selected for their "consistent devotion to the concept of art as a means to educate," and the work does tend to be rather didactic. For instance, much of the work in the show dates from the '60s, a time when the art world was preoccupied with Pop and the black community was focused on the civil rights movement. Civil rights being a more pressing reality than the concerns of Pop art, it's not hard to guess which direction the black art of the period leans toward. At the same time, one should add that black art hasn't gone untouched by avant-garde trends, and the influences of funk and Cubism pop up repeatedly in the work on view here.
Interspersing the artworks with quotes from leading figures from the black community (Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, Paul Robeson), which are posted on the walls along with lyrics from blues songs, "Celebrations" attempts to paint a more comprehensive portrait of the black experience in America than one might glean from the art alone. It's a nice idea, and this supplementary information adds considerable depth to the show, which focuses for the most part on simple and straightforward artworks.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is Mildred Howard's "Tap: Investigation of Memory," an installation piece involving 32 pairs of white shoes and hundreds of sets of taps arranged around an antique shoeshine stand. Based on Howard's childhood memories of her longshoreman father who shined shoes to supplement the family income, and her own experience as a member of her family's dance team (which also worked to help pay the rent), "Tap" pays homage to the countless blacks who worked overtime in order to make ends meet.
Highlights of the show include several works by the late Romare Bearden, an artist born in 1914 in North Carolina who developed a vibrantly colorful style combining elements of collage, Cubism and folk art, and a handful of pieces by pioneering black woman artist Elizabeth Catlett. As the titles for her work suggest--"Domestic," "For My People"--Catlett worked in an unabashedly heroic, populist style typical of much Works Progress Administration art. John Biggers' "Washer Woman," a drawing from 1945 done in a similar mode, is evocative of Thomas Hart Benton in its mythologized depiction of everyday life.
As always, splendid work by Alison Saar stands out as some of the finest in the show. Her three pieces here--a painting on the back of a guitar, a mixed media assemblage, and a painting on tin--pay tribute to black musicians, as do works by Howard Smith and William Pajaud. An assemblage from 1970 by Noah Purifoy suggests him to be under the influence of funk, while Floyd Coleman's mixed media works from the early '70s combining bold Pop motifs with African patterning bring to mind the hallucinatory writings of African author Amos Tutuola; Coleman's images are ripe with the pungent perfume of a shaman's juju.
Mel Edwards offers a minimal metal sculpture from 1981 that demonstrates that you needn't be a white artist living in Manhattan to make boring anal-retentive art, while Margo Humphrey's lithograph "The Last Barbeque," transforms the Last Supper into a watermelon and grits party. It's the only overtly humorous piece in the show, but then, the black experience in America hasn't given anybody much to laugh about.