Driskell's busy canvases reflect many elements packed into his artwork


October 31, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Like his life, David Driskell's art is chock full.

Driskell combines the careers of artist, teacher (at the University of Maryland), art historian and curator. He has written so many books and articles, organized so many exhibitions and published so many catalogs on the history of African-American art that he is widely regarded as the world's leading authority on the subject.

Despite so many demands on his time, he has never ceased to pursue his own art. "David Driskell: Masterworks" at School 33 brings together three dozen works of the last 10 years and so affords a generous view of the artist at this stage of his career.

At first glance, these almost compulsively worked surfaces speak of mid-20th century abstraction, in spite of their relatively small size: the all-over-painted look of them, the restless energy, the intensity, the importance of brush stroke, the emphasis on the two-dimensionality of the picture plane.

But there's a lot more going on here, too, as Driskell's titles indicate: references to both African art and African ancestry in a painting such as "Day of the Masks"; landscape and garden elements in works such as "Water Garden" and "Garden in the Woods"; music-like rhythms in the visual cadences of "Five Blues Notes" and "Blues Song, I"; surface pattern and movement that look as if they are about to coalesce into recognizable figures in "Spirits Watching, I."

At the time of a 1980 retrospective exhibit, Driskell engaged in a recorded conversation with fellow artist Richard Klank, in which Klank identified various elements in Driskell's work from Cezanne to African art to southern American Christianity to black American heritage. It's not always easy to identify such elements as specifically in these later works, but it's unmistakable that much goes into each of these paintings.

Another fellow artist, Keith Morrison, has written that a key to Driskell's work is provided by his interest in gathering (collecting and keeping things) and growing (gardening). One can see the growing impulse in some of his paintings, the gathering impulse in all.

At times, Driskell gathers too much. His works can have the look of over-compulsiveness, of having been worked, re-worked and added to until they finally end up busily hermetic.

One of his best works here is "Circular Move," with its stripings under a bright disc; it is suggestive of landscape, has a felicitous composition, is evocative of the heat and light of the sun, and has a kind of austere dignity. One of his worst, "In Search of My Mother's Art, #2," is simply chaotic. Most of these paintings rest between those poles.

Driskell also shows half a dozen sculptures, several of which involve snakes or serpents. These are more lighthearted than the paintings; they have a folk art look, and leave the impression that they serve their creator as a foil for the intense seriousness of his painting.

"David Driskell: Masterworks" continues through Dec. 6 at School 33 Art Center, 1427 Light St. Call 396-4641.

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