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CLAIMING THEIR CULTURE : Exhibit in Long Beach Offers Rare Spectrum of Views From America's Black Communities

July 08, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

In 1938, when Ernest Crichlow was 24 years old, he made a shocking lithograph with a bitter title. In "Lovers," a hooded Ku Klux Klan member clutches a panicked black woman in a bedroom that shows signs of struggle. The subject was timely: In the grim Depression days of the '30s, lynchings were on the rise once again.

Crichlow is one of 41 artists whose plain-spoken work is included in "Alone in a Crowd: Prints by African-American Artists of the 1930s-40s From the Collection of Reba and Dave Williams," a show at the Long Beach Museum of Art through Aug. 8 (organized by the Newark Museum and circulated by the American Federation of Arts).

Some of the images give vent to political rage, while others lovingly document familiar rural and urban occupations and entertainments. Still other works quietly comment on poverty and despair under cover of homespun "regionalist" imagery. As a group, these works offer a rare spectrum of views from America's black communities during the New Deal and World War II.

Very few of the prints are abstract, which is hardly surprising in the heyday of anti-modernist reaction in the United States, when populist art--realistic, celebrating local customs, and often socially conscious--was the dominant aesthetic. What is surprising is the scarcity of art of any kind made by African-Americans during the '30s and '40s, when they represented nearly 10% of the U.S. population.

Still, black printmakers might have been even scarcer during those years, if it weren't for community art centers. Founded during the late '30s and early '40s--under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its successor, the Work Projects Administration--the urban centers brought students and teachers together with printmaking tools.

Black American artists' emphasis on specifically black themes began with the "Harlem Renaissance," the pioneering African-American cultural movement of the '20s. In 1925, black educator Alain Locke pointed out that European modernists (notably Picasso) were strongly influenced by African sculpture, and it was high time that black American artists laid claim to their own ancestral culture.

"Masks," William McBride's 1941 stylized screen print of women's heads and foliage, was inspired by illustrations of traditional African textiles he saw in a newspaper; Charles White's blocky, sculptural treatment of a mother and child in his heavily ironic lithograph, "Hope for the Future," from about 1946 (seen through the window, a noose dangles from a dead tree) suggests a West African sculpture derivation.

A few of the works--like Charles White's "John Brown," a craggy lithograph portrait of the abolitionist hanged for treason after leading a slave uprising--recall high points in African-American history. Other prints are symbolic statements, like Elizabeth Catlett's linoleum cut, "My Reward Has Been Bars Between Me and the Rest of the Land," in which a sorrowful woman in a field finds her path impeded by chest-high barbed wire.

Religious themes take varied forms, ranging from Allan Rohan Crite's gold leaf-enhanced woodblock print of a black Holy Family to the stoic gravity of Robert Blackburn's "People in a Boat," one of the most memorable works in the show. In this lithograph, a small rowboat packed with faceless men ventures toward a lonely shore; the oars form a cross shape, and the gesture of a man dragging his hands in the water recalls the Raphael tapestry cartoon, "The Miraculous Draught of Fishes."

Leisure pursuits are relatively scarce in these prints, but dancing and music-making certainly top the list.

With their brilliant colors and rhythmic organization of rough-cut shapes, William Henry Johnson's "neoprimitive" screen prints are the most exhilarating works in the show. Although his work has been criticized for fostering black stereotypes, in his two rapturous screen prints of jitterbuggers, style and subject make a brilliant match.

In a more didactic vein, Raymond Steth's detailed lithograph, "Evolution of Swing," offers a newsreel-style panorama, sweeping from African drummers to slave musicians in the Old South to jazz musicians whose tunes waft back to Africa, courtesy of an up-to-the-minute '40s-style radio tower.

The bulk of the show consists of images of everyday life, viewed with attitudes ranging from overt bitterness to quiet resignation. While some artists portrayed scenes from the threadbare lives of sharecroppers making do in the rural South (Dox Thrash, Charles Alston, Wilmer Jennings), others observed the bleak world of urban poverty (William Smith, Ronald Joseph).

John Woodrow Wilson's "Street Car Scene," from 1945, focuses on a lone black rider wearing his Boston Navy Yard button. He sits with hands folded on his lunch box, on a street car where everyone else is white. Simple as it seems, the lithograph actually is rather ambiguous.

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