Art & Identity

Elizabeth Catlett's sculptures and Faith Ringgold's story quilts at the BMA present universal truths and tensions through the eyes of African-American artists.

February 01, 1999|By JOHN DORSEY | JOHN DORSEY,SUN ART CRITIC

It's impossible to think of a better pairing of artists than Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold. Two separate one-person shows of their work opened side by side at the Baltimore Museum of Art last week, and they have a chemistry that comes from dealing with the same subject matter in strikingly different but equally impressive ways.

Seeing the two of them together is like listening to two great voices sing a duet in which the words are different but the melody unites them. The melody in this case is that both are African-American women whose work deals with being African-American and a woman but, at the same time, has a breadth of appeal that knows no boundaries.

Yet each explores her themes in ways independent, original and brilliant. Catlett is a sculptor, whose show "Elizabeth Catlett Sculpture: A Fifty-Year Retrospective" brings together 55 of her works from 1946 to 1997. Ringgold has created an art form called the "story quilt" that combines painting, quilting and story-telling. "Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold's French Collection and Other Story Quilts" presents 21 of her quilts created since 1980.

The two artists complement one another in multiple ways. Cat-lett's work is classic, spiritual, timeless and endowed with quiet authority. Ringgold's quilts are bright, lively and word-oriented. Where Catlett's stylized, slightly abstracted human forms come out of mid-century modernism, Ringgold's work comes from a postmodern sensibility. She borrows from and depicts older artists, such as Manet, van Gogh, Picasso and especially Matisse, and she deals directly with modern-day social issues including race, gender and family.

Catlett's work possesses a continuity and consistency that spans decades and reveals a mastery of diverse materials. Her "Pensive" of 1946 in bronze, "Pensive" of 1963 in cedar and "Torso" of 1985 in mahogany are variations on the theme of the individual lost in thought. Yet each has a separate identity -- the first sad, the second hopeful, the third resigned -- so that they do not seem repetitious.

Similarly, her several renditions of "Mother and Child" from 1956 to 1993 share the theme of love but achieve variety in materials (wood, terra cotta, marble, bronze) and scale (11 1/4 to 67 inches tall). But in their dignity and depth of emotion, they achieve monumentality whatever the size.

Catlett has said that she depicts the African-American woman because that is what she knows best. But the appeal of her work is universal because of her theme: the nobility of the human spirit, its capacity for love, devotion, selflessness and goodness. Those qualities speak not only through the expressiveness of her figures, but through the polished, shining beauty of her surfaces. Light caresses them, as if the outward manifestation of an inner glow.

When Catlett gets most specific, her work can be effective but less deeply moving. "Homage to My Young Black Sisters" (1968), with its upraised arm, and "Target" (1970), showing a young man as if seen through the sights of a gun, look a little obvious. "Black Unity" (1968), on the other hand, possesses a winning originality. One side shows two faces; the other side shows not the backs of their heads but a clenched fist.

Ringgold created her first combination of painting and quilt-making with her mother, Willi Posey, when the two collaborated on "Echoes of Harlem" in 1980. After Posey's death the next year, Ringgold further developed the form. It became a central image painted on canvas stitched to resemble a quilt, surrounded by a border of pieces of patterned fabric stitched together like a quilt. And she added stories, written right on the surface of the work.

She began to work in series, such as the five-part "Women on a Bridge" (1988), including the beautifully executed "Tar Beach" (a family picnics on a roof as a daughter dreams of flying over the George Washington Bridge).

Between 1991 and 1997, Ringgold created an epic 12-part series called "The French Collection" (of which eight are on the national tour). In it, the fictional character and Ringgold's alter ego Willia Marie Simone travels to France in the early modern period and has a career as an artist, model and cafe owner.

In the course of the series, she poses for Picasso and comments on modernism's debt to African art; celebrates the great African-American performer Josephine Baker; and brings together great black women of history (Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, etc.) and great black and white male and female artists of history (William H. Johnson, Archibald Motley, Edmonia Lewis, Lois Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, Henry O. Tanner, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, etc.)

Willia acts as an advocate for African art and African-Americans, men and women, artists and others. But she also brings black and white people together in interracial harmony.

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