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Gambit Weekly Transcending Walls and Barriers

By D. Eric Bookhardt

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  Broadly speaking, history is made by two kinds of people. On the one hand, there are those like Christopher Columbus, who are credited with having changed the world. And then there are those like the Viking explorers (or Irish, African or Chinese), who did the same thing at a much earlier time but whose media connections were insufficient to ensure historic status.

Such things are very much a matter of timing, perspective and connections, but changes are made and life goes on somewhat differently in either case. And if some people change the world in the glare of spotlights, others just quietly do their thing, reshaping reality in their own way and at their own pace.

Lois Mailou Jones falls somewhere between those categories. Her work is about as subtle, elusive and protean as the artist herself; hence, it is not easily characterized. Yet, historically speaking, Jones is an epochal figure. In 1941, she broke the color barrier at Washington's prestigious Corcoran Gallery, which had maintained a whites-only policy despite being taxpayer-supported. Jones got around this by having her old Paris friend, Celine Tabary, deliver her entry to a Corcoran invitational show for her. It went on to receive the top award of the Society of Washington Artists before anyone realized that she was an African-American.

Born in the earliest years of the century, Jones was a black female artist at a time when neither blacks nor women were taken seriously in the visual arts. For someone of her talents (her drawings from age 22 suggest those of a mid-career maestro), this could be discouraging. Yet she quietly went her own way, changing the prevailing reality of her day, and America is a better place for it. Jones blazed the trail that so many others have followed.

That much said, it also should be noted that she was never a starving artist; she was, in fact, successful from the start. Born in Boston, where the racism was of a relatively progressive sort, she quickly made her mark as a textile designer upon graduation from the school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. At age 23, she was the chairwoman of the art department at a South Carolina junior college. Two years later, she was recruited for the faculty of Washington's prestigious Howard University, where she remained for the following 47 years.

Even so, being a successful designer and educator is not the same as being an artist, strictly speaking. In 1937, Jones won a fellowship to study in Paris, where her painting style evolved into its signature synthesis of French and African motifs -- a mix evident in this mini-retrospective show that spans her career. It is a synthesis that attained critical intensity in her Haiti series, which largely dates from her marriage to Haitian designer Louis Pierre-Noel in 1953. She still pursues this style today at age 92.

Lois Mailou Jones at Stella Jones, Rowland Scherman at Simonne Stern and Marie-Dominique Verdier at Shooting Star -- through August.

Jones' Vévé Voudou III from 1963.

Subsequent trips to Africa completed her evolutionary cycle, resulting in boldly geometric acrylics that seem a far cry from her initial impressionistic style. Yet, viewed closely, all of her works reveal a consistent sense of mystery and depth. Like a musician with perfect pitch, she transcends the ordinary with a mix of divinatory insight and superlative execution. Lois Mailou Jones is a historical art figure, and it is a rare day when work of this sort turns up in a downtown gallery in August.

More French connections can be seen in photographs by Marie-Dominique Verdier at Shooting Star. Actually, Verdier is not only a part of the French community living in New Orleans but also a part of the local music community. Her series New Orleans Walls includes portraits of performers such as Anders Osborne and a variety of others -- all montaged into the richly organic textures of our weathered local walls and building facades.

Printed in intense color, the effect is eerily decadent as visions of the young and hip vie for visibility with crumbling bricks, graffiti and mortar (not to mention all the lower life forms, mold and even ferns that seem to flourish in such places). Verdier is an emerging artist, and her images are unpretentiously priced. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

More walls abound in Rowland Scherman's photos at Stern. Unlike Verdier, Scherman is a veteran photographer. His new Walls of San Miguel series is a collection of iris prints on watercolor paper, abstract images made with a Nikon and a zoom lens focused on strategic sections of walls in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Now, the watercolor paper is about as traditional as you can get, while the images evoke abstract expressionists like Rothko. But iris prints are a recent ripple in digital technology, so it is all multilayered, a bafflement of mixed messages and media -- a postmodern maze from the walled gardens of cyberspace.


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