At School 33: forcing viewers to confront issues of race

June 11, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Art Review

What: Paintings by Arvie Smith and "Spring 1993 Juried Exhibition"

Where: School 33 Art Center, 1427 Light St.

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through July 16

Call: (410) 396-4641

Arvie Smith's paintings on the subject of race are upstairs in Gallery II at School 33, not downstairs in the main gallery; but they are so powerful thematically and so strongly made that they demand to be mentioned first here.

Smith's vividly colored canvases have a baroque presence, crowded even when there are few figures and full of dynamism even when the figures are standing still. He pushes people up against the picture plane, crowding out space and forcing confrontations on the viewer.

The descendant of slaves, Smith paints works about the black experience and black-white relations, but not solely about the African-American experience -- the application is broader than that. In "Two Eves," one is white and one is black; the white Eve takes stage center with the serpent at her feet, and the black Eve is placed slightly behind and to one side. This manages to suggest both that black was the forerunner of white and that white was, indeed, responsible for the Fall.

"You Better Dance Now, If You Gwineter Dance A Tall" shows another two women, one black and one white, on a balustraded terrace overlooking the sea on which a ship approaches. The black figure, looking as if she just stepped out of a poster by Toulouse-Lautrec, dances while the white figure looks on, cautiously. Despite the history of slavery, this picture says, the black is the one who possesses the pulse of life. To read a description of Smith's work, though, is to get little understanding of how forceful it is -- it must be seen.

The somewhat spotty "Spring 1993 Juried Exhibition" in the main gallery downstairs was curated by Thelma Golden, associate curator of the Whitney Museum in New York, and includes six artists whose work deals in one way or another with gender.

The most striking work is Eunice Kanbara's installation "Kiss of Life, Kiss of Death." Individually suspended from the ceiling in a small dark room, and reaching almost to the floor, are 117 small goldfish bowls, 13 rows of nine each forming a big rectangle. In the very center bowl of this rectangle is a live goldfish, while in all the others surrounding it are pieces of paper with black kiss marks on them. Most relationships, this appears to say, are the kiss of death; the one that involves the kiss of life is rare indeed.

The degree of success of other artists in this show varies. Among the more interesting is Katarina Wong, who describes her "Six Figures" as "personal protective figures" influenced by "African power figures [which] ward off evil from the village." These are six dress dummies each with some sort of protective apparatus. One is wrapped in barbed wire, another fitted with locks, another coated with broken glass. These may be particularly resonant to women, but everyone can identify with the vulnerability we feel in this violent world.

Gail Rebhan's pictures and texts involve stories that have to do with her two sons' gender consciousness, and sensitivity to gender issues. There is truth in what she has to communicate, but it's pretty obvious. The same goes for Richard Harrington's "Toy Favorites," a series of paintings which reproduce on a large scale advertisements for boys' toys (a gun, a punching bag, etc.) from an old Sears, Roebuck catalog to demonstrate how the culture seeks, or at least sought, to inculcate in male children a macho image of the man's role.

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