Artist Of The Ordinary

Carl Clark's photographs celebrate an uncommon subject -- the commonplace lives and everyday activities of African-Americans.

June 25, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

It is a hard truth but truth nevertheless that the history of the visual arts in America has not been kind to people of color.

For most of this century, the visual arts of African-Americans have been relegated to the sidelines of mainstream exhibition and criticism. While cultural critics acknowledged the African-American contribution to music and, to a lesser extent, literature, African-American painting, sculpture, photography and printmaking remained until recently all but invisible to most white Americans.

One result of this situation has been that, with a few notable exceptions, the visual record of the black presence in America has been largely shaped by white artists, whose images often were designed to reinforce a set of severely restricted stereotypes of black identity.

As the critic Guy C. McElroy has observed, the ways white American artists historically have portrayed African-Americans constitute an index of how the majority of Americans have felt about their black neighbors.

"Prosperous collectors created a demand for depictions that fulfilled their own ideas of blacks as grotesque buffoons, servile menials, comic entertainers or threatening subhumans," McElroy noted. "These depictions were, for the most part, willingly supplied by American artists. A vicious cycle of supply and demand sustained images that denied the inherent humanity of black people by reinforcing their limited role in American society."

It is in the context of this tragic history that the photography of Baltimore artist Carl Clark must be understood. Clark's photographs, which are the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at Maryland Art Place through July 15, stand in a long tradition of protest against the visual dehumanization of African peoples in American art.

Neither a polemicist nor a propagandist, Clark's pictures are tender, knowing recitals of the ordinary moments that constitute the everyday fabric of contemporary African-American life. He is a visual historian, a social documentarian and a wry teller of tales that otherwise almost surely would go unrecorded and unremarked.

Clark's pictures are a celebration of the commonplace in a culture in which black skin is always fraught with the troublesome baggage of the past. Merely to portray black people as people, rather than as embodiments of society's anxieties, fears and obsessions, is itself a mildly revolutionary act. The power of Clark's photographs perhaps lies in the fact that they are peopled by men, women and children who seem so sublimely unaware their images could inspire such passions.

Evoking emotions

In a recent interview, Clark, 67, described his work as a personal journey toward self-understanding and self-acceptance as well as the product of a sustained and well-honed critical vision.

"My photographs are me talking to me, me emoting," he said. "I'm convinced that emotions inform the intellect, not the other way around. So I want my images to evoke emotions of some kind, to not just reflect the culture but to force the viewer to experience it in some new, intense way -- to make you contemplate, to give you pause, to stimulate. And to the extent that they do that, I think they are art."

As an example, Clark cites a photograph in the Maryland Art Place show that was taken last year during an "I Am an American Day" parade along Baltimore's North Avenue.

The picture's central figure is a plump, teen-age girl with broad features and dark skin who is twirling a baton as she dances and chants her way down the wide boulevard. She is completely absorbed in the moment, and her obvious happiness over being part of the event invites the viewer to share her pleasure.

For Clark, the picture is emblematic of a certain kind of experience that too often gets short shrift in the barrage of images propagated by mainstream media.

"My picture is a document of an event, but it also tells about a time, a people, a culture -- a Baltimore African-American culture," he says. "That alone has an emotional value, both because we like seeing ourselves and because it's that one moment when an otherwise ordinary person suddenly shines and becomes immortalized."

If Clark's teen-age baton twirler were white, blond and slender, and the setting were downtown along Charles Street, the picture would be just another image of exuberant youth. But what is perfectly ordinary in one context takes on new meanings when the circumstances are altered slightly.

Clark presents us with a subject who does not fit into white Americans' ideal of feminine beauty and a locale many white viewers probably would be reluctant to visit even for a parade celebrating America. The picture makes us realize that "ordinary" and "everyday" are relative terms, and that the difference between ordinary and extraordinary can depend merely on which side of the distorting lens of race one is looking through.

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