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Gambit Weekly Ancestors and Others

By D. Eric Bookhardt

MAY 4, 1998: 

WHO: African-American masterworks

WHO: Jeffrey Cook


Following on the heels of the Caribbean voodoo expos at NOMA, the CAC and elsewhere, the Newcomb Gallery's African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks show rounds out an unusual season in the local art world. An assortment of work by Afro-art avatars ranging from Henry Ossawa Tanner to Romare Bearden and Benny Andrews, 20th Century Masterworks may seem rather genteel compared to the metaphysical street theater of recent voodoo art. Yet, by mingling some of the most historic names in the genre with a smattering of other, more esoteric counterparts, the show offers insights that can be as subtle as they are unexpected.

Of course, the historic and the esoteric sometimes intersect, as the life of Tanner amply illustrates. Born in 1859 in Pittsburgh, Tanner became a painter against the wishes of his father -- an African Methodist Episcopal bishop who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he studied under Thomas Eakins and eventually expatriated to France, where he became an international art star. Known for the dreamlike luminosity of his landscapes, Tanner's sophisticated spirituality pervades most of his output, whether his subjects were intended to be religious or not.

While Tanner's historic legacy rests on a lifetime dedicated to art as a spiritual discipline, some of his contemporaries took a very different, if no less unique, approach. Bill Traylor began his life as a slave on the Alabama plantation where he was born in 1854. There he worked, married and sired 22 children, and there he remained until his wife died in 1938. Only then, at age 85, did he decide to make some changes, so he moved to Montgomery, where he lived out the remainder of his days as an artist.

By the time he died in 1947, he had created a legacy of more than 1,500 drawings. Utterly untutored, Traylor was a classic "outsider" artist -- the fine arts equivalent of a self-taught blues musician -- hence, he was a founding father of the now trendy outsider art genre. And if whimsical images such as Cat Climbing Table or Brown Spotted Cow lack academic finesse, they instead possess an expressiveness that is almost like latter-day cave painting in its poetic economy. By using the most direct means at his disposal to conjure the spirit of his subjects, Traylor displayed a sensibility not unlike that of the voodoo artist.

Most of the rest of this show falls somewhere between abstract and narrative art, or some combination thereof, as we see in the works of Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett and Benny Andrews. Indeed, these are some of the main names that come to mind when we think of 20th century African-American art -- a category that, from this latter-century perspective, often seems oddly European in tone. For instance, Bearden's striking collages resonate a distinctly German expressionist edge -- but this comes as no surprise, considering that he studied with the great Teutonic funk-meister George Grosz at the Art Student's League in New York.

But if the influence of European abstraction seems pervasive, it is a phenomenon that needs to be kept in perspective; European abstraction was, after all, profoundly influenced by Africa in the first place. In the art world, the modern and antique, local and global, sophisticated and primitive, often change places. Perhaps for this reason, the ancient African art of the fetish, or charged object, has resurfaced with a vengeance in recent times.

Evidence of this is found in the profoundly poetic assemblages of Betye Saar, subtly collaged constructions in which memories, dreams and desires arise from the improbable magic of ordinary, if artfully arranged objects. Here, the surrealism of a Joseph Cornell meets the mojo of the sub-Saharan shaman. Still active at age 72, Saar is a bridge between the historicism of this show and the still unnamed sensibilities of the present -- sensibilities elegantly illustrated in Jeffrey Cook's new work at Stern.

Like many of his contemporaries, Cook looks directly to Africa for inspiration. Though he bypasses much of the European tone of modern art, his work is readily accessible without regard to ethnicity. His assemblage I Promise to Remember melds the psychic subtlety of the surrealists with the earthy power of Africa's nature gods. Like an apparition out of time and space, or a spooky totemic melange, Remember is a kind of ritual ground where symbolic objects assume new life out of a vortex of lost memories.

Eloquent and haunting, Cook's work evokes an evolution of voodoo into the ongoing reconciliation of art and shamanism. And if this sounds like a new kind of consciousness, it is actually a very old consciousness -- the oldest, in fact. But that is why it seems so new, as this mechanical millennium grinds to a close, and the poetry of visionary perception attains scientific stature once again.

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