An artful convergence

Elizabeth Catlett's sculptures and Faith Ringgold's story quilts make strong statements about their will, vision and humanity.

January 24, 1999|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold are two African-American artists who have forged significant reputations, Catlett as a sculptor and Ringgold for an art form she created that combines aspects of painting and quilt making.

Their works have been shown from coast to coast in this country and internationally, and are included in leading museum collections. Their art reflects their experience as African-Americans and women, yet has a breadth of appeal that knows no barriers.

Since early last year, two major shows, one devoted to each artist, have been on separate national tours: "Elizabeth Catlett Sculpture: A Fifty-Year Retrospective" and "Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold's French Collection and Other Story Quilts."

Now for the first time, the shows have been brought to-gether. They will both open at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Wednesday.

"This is a momentous occasion," says Leslie King- Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, who knows the work of both women intimately. "We can stand in awe of their tenacious will, their penetrating vision, and their humanity that the entire world can celebrate."

It was Brenda Richardson, the former deputy director for art at the BMA, who had arranged, during her tenure in Baltimore, for the two shows to meet.

"From a socio-cultural perspective, the very idea that such powerful black women artists, both alive, could be presented at the same time I thought would be a blockbuster statement," she says. "And statements are important when it comes to black and women artists. I thought it would be really significant, and would make a difference, especially among young people and schoolchildren. In terms of art, they're really interesting, they are both very moving, and they speak to one another."

Catlett, the older of the two, is now 83. Born in Washington in 1915, she attended Howard University and graduate school at the University of Iowa. Subsequently she lived and taught school in New York, but in 1946 moved to Mexico City where she met and married the Mexican artist Francisco Mora. She has lived in Mexico since, but frequently travels to the United States.

Catlett's sculpture is figural and concentrates almost ex- clusively on the woman. She is equally at home working in wood, stone, ceramics and bronze. Her figures are not people on a pedestal. They are usually of ordinary people in everyday poses -- "Tired," "Pensive" (both 1946), for example -- and are intended to appeal to ordinary people.

"When I was working with Grant Wood [at Iowa], he in- sisted that we use subject matter that we knew the most about, and I thought I knew the most about black women," Catlett says. "It grew on me that I wanted to create a kind of art that people would understand. Ordinary people."

Often Catlett's sculpture has the reduced, semi-abstract shapes and volumes of mid-20th-century modernism, akin to work by Henry Moore. But it also owes a debt to African and pre-Columbian sculpture, especially in its emphasis on women and its emotional content.

While Catlett's figures are African-American and female, their appeal encompasses universal human qualities. The mother and child has been a frequent theme of her work, and her 1993 "Mother and Child," a life-size, standing sculpture, is a good example.

The mother's face has slightly stylized features suggestive of an African mask; but the closed eyes and slightly open mouth are expressive of a love so deep that the viewer instantly remembers being held in a motherly embrace.

The rich brown mahogany, polished to a soft sheen, suggests the brown skin of African descent, but the work's emo- tional presence transcends such specificity. Dignified and tender, it quietly proclaims that the essence of the human spirit is without boundaries of race or age, time or place.

Like Catlett, Ringgold works from an African-American perspective, and the African-American woman is her subject matter. But her work also has complementary differences. Where Catlett's work reflects mid-20th century modernism, Ringgold's aesthetic comes out of a later sensibility.

"She makes reference to the pop art tradition, and her whole technique is very realistic and colorful," says Anita Jones, BMA curator of textiles, who is curating the Ringgold show in Baltimore. "They are very different in that sense."

Where Catlett is a sculptor, Ringgold has invented a hybrid form of art, combining painting with elements of traditional quilting. The central image is painted on a canvas that has been stitched like a quilt, and, like a quilt, the borders are made of pieces of patterned fabric stitched together.

Where Catlett deals in metaphor (woman as the embodiment of love, for instance), Ringgold deals in narrative. Her quilts tell stories, written on the fabric borders.

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