Holston layers on the emotion in planes of color

African-American painter draws on myriad traditions and makes them his own


October 26, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

If there is any justice in the world, visitors to the exhibition of Joseph Holston's paintings and etchings that opens today at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi will recognize this Maryland artist as one of the best African-American painters of the 20th century. On the evidence of this show, comparisons with Jacob Lawrence, creator of the "Great Migration" series, and Romare Bearden, whose collages on African-American themes are the subject of a stupendous retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington this fall, begin to seem reasonable.

The UMUC show presents 50 of Holston's most recent works, which reveal the artist at the peak of his powers. In the mixed-media painting Two Nudes (2003), for example, Holston renders a pair of female figures as abstract forms reminiscent of Picasso's reworking of African masks and classical Greek nudes.

The women's forms emerge from a fractured background derived from analytic cubism, but its flat surface, broken by irregularly shaped planes of color, is also embellished by collaged pieces of lace and other fabrics.

Similarly, in The Horseman (2003), Holston tips his hat to the great American traditions of Western landscape and regionalist painting as well as to the politically charged Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco.

Yet Holston's paintings don't look like anyone's but his own. He has an uncanny ability to take in the most diverse and even contradictory traditions, and then give it all back transformed by his own muse. This is what makes me think his art will last.

It should go without saying that Holston's handling of the paint medium demonstrates an easy and complete technical mastery. The luminous quality of his images is a result of skillful layering and underpainting, by which complementary and contrasting hues are allowed to show through the top layers of paint, producing a dazzling frisson of emotional color on the eye.

It's probably worth asking why Holston, as an African-American artist, should so consistently refer to the European painting tradition, especially its early modernist incarnation.

Recall that the pioneering African-American artists of the Harlem Renaissance all embraced Picasso and Matisse not as imitators but as kindred spirits -- after all, Picasso had invented cubism from studying African masks; Matisse's fauvist colors and decorative patterns evoked the African-American folk traditions of quilting and embroidery.

So the painters of the Harlem Renaissance adopted European modernism not as a fashion statement but rather as a potent, politically conscious tool for expressing the new identity that African-Americans were attempting to forge for themselves during the first decades of the 20th century. It is that legacy that Holston celebrates in his own paintings as well.

The American experience historically has been a continuing negotiation between the principles of unity and diversity, of the great melting pot into which all the cultures of the world flow, and from which they emerge alloyed in startlingly new and unexpected forms.

Jazz and the blues are the quintessential American music precisely because they are woven from the strands of all the world's musics, from European classicism to African song to peasant folk tunes and Protes-tant religious hymns.

Holston's themes are equally inclusive and universal: landscape, nude and still life; horses, card players and dancers; people praying, going to church and working in the fields.

There's an eternity of human joy and suffering in these paintings, and yet they are completely of the present moment; no one but Holston could have done them, and even he could only have done them now.


What: Art of Joseph Holston

Where: Arts Program Gallery, Inn and Conference Center, University of Maryland University College, 3501 University Blvd. East in Adelphi

When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily today through Feb. 1

Admission: Free.

Call: 301-985-7939.

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