Sketchy 'Portraits' of a few black men Art review: Despite some strong work, a shortage of artists and photos leaves a School 33 show that barely touches on its subject.

February 07, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

After many years hidden behind a lot of stereotypes, the African-American male's complexity and humanity are gradually becoming more visible. The Million Man March last year was about the black male in America, and a year ago New York's Whitney Museum presented a major exhibition, "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art." It would be great to have a good local show devoted to the same subject, but unfortunately "Portraits of Our Lives" at School 33 isn't it.

The fault may not lie wholly with curator Sharon Stainback. Of the seven African-American, male photographers originally scheduled to show in the exhibit, three pulled out at a late date -- for a variety of reasons quite unrelated to the show, Stainback says. She responded by adding one artist, Eli Reid, to the other four.

But there are neither enough artists nor images in this show to give us more than a teasing glimpse of the subject. It's too large a subject to be treated fully even if the walls were filled floor to ceiling with photographs. So it's particularly disappointing to have expanses of bare wall and under-representation of the artists who remain in the show.

Ken Royster's work is a good case in point. Royster's group of eight photographs of the Million Man March are far too few to give us any idea of what it was like. And, divided between crowd scenes and shots of individuals, they give us neither a sense of the crowd nor a sense of the variety of humanity there.

Reid's four photographs look even lonelier, and their subject matter is so disparate that they don't add up to much. Aside from that, these works are of people with whom the ordinary viewer has little in common -- celebrities or outcasts -- so there is a failure to establish lines of communication between the people looking at the photographs and the people in the photographs.

The rest of the show is better. Earl Anderson has contributed some strong close-ups of faces. But Russ Moss and Carl Clark leave the best impressions here, because they get closest to people and activities with which we can identify.

Moss' "I Been Scorned" shows a man with crutches sitting on outdoor steps strewn with trash. That may not be a situation in which the viewer is likely to find himself, but it's a powerful image of the kind of place to which the black male has been relegated both in fact and in too many people's minds. And Moss' other photos, though too few, do give some flavor of a variety of life.

It is Carl Clark, however, who best captures moments from individual lives: three guys standing on a street corner, a fellow playing chess, a father holding his child, a guy flexing his muscular arm in front of a woman. By capturing everyday (rather than special occasion) moments of people who are not famous or important (so far as we know), Clark leaves us feeling closer to the world of the black male than any of the other artists here, and also emphasizes parallels. Our lives are much alike, these photos say to the viewer, and that's eminently worth saying.

'Portraits of Our Lives'

Where: School 33 Art Center, 1427 Light St.

When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays until Feb. 23

$ Call: (410) 396-4641

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