Greek myths, black prism

Art: Baltimore artist Chevelle Jones recasts Persephone using African-American forms.

March 21, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In the postmodern era, art by African-American artists occupies a somewhat ambiguous position.

Because much of it was conceived as a form of protest against the exclusion of black images in European and American art, modernist critics often dismissed it as propaganda rather than art.

But postmodernism has made both multiculturalism and political protest a legitimate aesthetic strategy. As a result, artists who once would have been marginalized as "too preoccupied" with race -- for example, Joyce Scott, whose work is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- now find themselves on the cutting edge.

Chevelle Makeba Moore Jones is a Baltimore artist whose work is deeply rooted in the folk aesthetic pioneered by African-American painters such as Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence and other artists of the Harlem Renaissance during the decades 1920-1940.

Jones, whose work is on view at Galerie Francoise in Lutherville through March 30, portrays African-American figures as beautiful, life-affirming and subject to the poetic and mythical possibilities all humanity is heir to.

The most striking pieces in the show are the large paintings which recast in African-American forms the Greek myth of Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, who was abducted by Hades to be his wife in the underworld.

In Jones' work, the ancient myth is a metaphor for the processes of death and renewal. Her canvases are brilliantly patterned tableaux that depict both the life force which produces nature's abundance and its opposite, the nemesis of human happiness and aspiration.

Some of the paintings also incorporate Christian symbolism, notably the Madonna and Child and the dove of the Holy Spirit. The overlay of Christian religious iconology on classical myth gives rise to multiple interpretations of the images, making them impossible to define in narrow racial categories.

There is great joy and virtuosity in Jones' brushwork, which effortlessly executes the most complex combinations of colors and shapes while seamlessly integrating every element of her picture into a single grand design. Her paintings are simply breathtaking and well worth the trip to see a very promising artist nearing the height of her powers.

Galerie Francoise is located in Green Spring Station, 2360 W. Joppa Road in Lutherville. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4 p.m. For information call 410-337-2787.

Tchotchkes on tchow

You don't have to be Jewish to love "Tchotchkes!: Treasures of the Family Museum," a delightful exhibition of ethnic-flavored knick-knacks at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

As the show's organizers note, sometimes large meanings are attached to small things. Tchotchkes (pronounced CHOTCH-kuz) is the plural form of a Yiddish word that roughly translates as knick-knacks or bric-a-brac.

The importance of tchotchkes lies not so much in their value as objects as in their function as ethnic markers and reminders of group identity. They are small family treasures, the kinds of things that have sat on the family mantelpiece for as long as anyone can remember.

Every ethnic group has knick-knacks unique to its history. This show focuses on knick-knacks with specifically Jewish content. Tchotchkes can be almost anything, and the variety of objects in the Jewish Museum show is nearly mind-boggling -- ceramic figurines, plastic statuettes, T-shirts, coffee-mugs, stuffed animals, miniature flags, handicrafts of all sorts.

These are all objects that owe their existence to industrial mass production in a dynamic, expanding economy. Thus tchotchkes are also mementos of the aspirations of an immigrant people to fully take part in the American dream of material affluence.

This is the first American museum exhibition on the subject and one of the few explorations of the topic in any format.

Many of the several hundred objects on display were loaned to the show from Maryland residents. The exhibit was conceived by museum director Avi Decter and curated by assistant curator Melissa Martens, project coordinator Karen Falk and curatorial associate Jobi Okin.

This is a fun exhibit that has the serious purpose of exploring how even casual objects may reveal important relationship between the individual and society.

The Jewish Museum is located at 15 Lloyd St. in Baltimore. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For information call 410-732-6400.

Bright new talent

Periodically I slip over to the Maryland Institute, College of Art to see what the young'uns are up to.

Last week I was impressed by the work of Monique Paris, an undergraduate photography student whose large-format images of house interiors are on view in the ground floor gallery of the photography department at the main building on Mount Royal Avenue.

Paris has discovered early what it takes many photographers a long time to learn and what some never do: to compose with light.

Her luminous interiors, which sometimes include a half-blurred human figure, are muscular studies in the interplay of light and dark that exhibit qualities of balance, grace and poise.

This is work that holds great promise. We look forward to the unfolding of a bright new young talent.

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