Two artists peer inside black experience

November 15, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Schroeder Cherry makes people-boxes. That seems to be the best thing to call his works of art now appearing in a two-person show at Morgan State University. A painted wooden head sits atop a box with doors on the front which, when the doors are closed, looks like a person's clothed torso; it's painted with a coat and tie, or a dress, for instance.

Open the doors, however, and you have a treasure chest of articles that indicate what the work is about; for these people are not so much individuals as they represent different sorts of people -- an athlete, a working woman, a singer, etc. -- who are symbolic of aspects of the African-American experience.

"Prosperity Angel," when closed, bears an abstract pattern on a black background. Opened, it shows a head wearing a necklace studded with coins above a washboard acting as background for hanging keys, a bank note from Ghana, a watermelon slice and a printed legend which reads in part "prosperity is simply having the money we need when we need it."

"Immigrant," when closed, shows a man dressed in formal clothes andholding a goblet. Open, it reveals a sailing ship, a chain, watermelon slice, and photos presumably taken in Africa together with one photo of New York. One can easily put together from this an African-American mini-history: the slave ship, the chains, the struggle for freedom and prosperity.

Many of these works speak of the African-American struggle and of a deep and sustaining faith. "Afro-Christian" closed shows a woman wearing religious garb; open, it contains a Bible, keys, candles, small dolls and a legend which includes the words "simply -- we are here for God."

"No Cross No Crown" bears the legend, on the inside of its doors, "Ifyou can't bear no cross you sure can't wear no crown."

Cherry's works have a serious message, but also a fun side in the discovery of what's inside the boxes. They're lighthearted serious, and they encourage people not to forget the past but to carry it forward into a proud future.

I don't think the artist could make a career out of such works; they would become repetitious, as the 18 of them here do to

some degree. But they're a novel way to put across a positive message.

The other artist in the show is Preston Sampson, whose brightly colored paintings of people -- some of them musicians -- are at times too decorative to be as substantial as they might want to be. But two stand out.

"Endangered Species" is a picture of a young black man in shirt and tie. The meaning couldn't be clearer: The survival of black youth is threatened in today's world.

Far the strongest work here, however, is the least typical. "Last Angry Black Man" has the look of an unfinished painting, and is much the better for it. A face, painted virtually all in black, white and gray except for a few slashes of red, carries its force in the expressionist gesture with which it's painted as well as in its image. Sampson would do well to make more works like this one; it packs a punch.

ART REVIEW

What: "Portraits, Spirits, and Black Sacred Music: A Two-Man Show"

Where: James E. Lewis Gallery, in the upper level of Morgan State University's Northwood annex, at the rear of the Northwood Shopping Center

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, through Dec. 10

Call: (410) 319-3030

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