Paintings comment on race, class


November 04, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Looking Glass View, Tonya Ingersol's debut exhibition at Galerie Francoise in Lutherville, is an exploration of what the artist calls "the murky relationship between race and class."

Race and class are indeed the main subjects of Ingersol's large-scale figurative oil-on-panel paintings. And her handling of the issue makes clear that race is such a powerful historical construction that it trumps conventional markers of social class every time.

The well-dressed, attractive middle-class black women Ingersol takes as her subjects seem continually undermined by the unpredictable intrusions of a tragic racial history that render their ostensibly comfortable affluence distinctly uncomfortable.

In The Arrival, for example, an impeccably tailored African-American woman stands before the entrance to what looks like a cocktail reception in an upscale hotel lobby. A smiling blond woman in a white Chanel suit beckons welcomingly from inside.

But just outside the door, on the same plane as the new arrival, is also a small statue of a black man dressed in livery, a throwback to those once ubiquitous lawn jockeys whose presence at the entrance to white homes mapped the topography of racial privilege and power in no uncertain terms.

Moreover, just inside the door, the figure of another black man can be seen wearing a caterer's uniform as he prepares the guests' drinks (Ingersol permits herself a sly insider joke by casting her investment manager husband as the poker-faced caterer).

However, not even the new arrival's obviously expensive clothes and faithfully rendered designer accessories (fashion mavens will recognize a catalog of famous brand names), allow her to escape the casual humiliation imposed by an institutional setting that has already defined blacks as menials.

In another painting, a black woman wearing elegant casual attire is seen window-shopping along the cobblestone streets of Annapolis' historic district.

Though she's obviously able to afford the expensive trinkets on display, her claim to social parity with the shops' white clientele is subtly undermined by the presence of a homeless black man scrounging food from a trash receptacle nearby.

No matter how tightly sheathed she is in her armor of middle-class respectability, the painting seems to suggest that this woman will always be held accountable for the moral failings of her destitute racial doppelganger.

Ingersol's paintings make visible the unpredictable psychic dislocations and invisible social barriers that confound and humiliate even affluent African-American women on a daily basis.

Her women are perpetual outsiders in a society that pays lip service to the idea of equality but which seems incapable of honoring it in practice - perhaps because the castelike divisions of race are so deeply ingrained that most white people don't even notice them anymore.

The trio of socially secure white matrons sitting together at a table in the background of The Arrival, for example, would no doubt find their black guest's discomfiture quite incomprehensible.

Ingersol's paintings are workmanlike images constructed from photographs of models in staged situations choreographed by the artist. Although Ingersol does not appear in the works herself, her images clearly are meant to evoke her own experience as a middle-class African-American woman.

This is a show of great conceptual sophistication and dry visual irony, executed in an uncomplicated realistic style whose chief virtues are compassion for its subjects and tact in depicting their routine psychic traumas. It all adds up to a very promising debut by a most interesting young artist.

Looking Glass View runs through Dec. 6. The gallery is at 2360 W. Joppa Road in Green Spring Station. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call 410-337-2787.

Clearly colorful

Spanish artist Luis Perez Espinosa's exuberant American debut at Gallery International is the kind of show that will make you happy in spite of yourself.

Espinosa makes no pretensions to deep philosophical statements or cutting social commentary. Instead, his art grows out of an irrepressible and hugely seductive love of brilliant color and the vibrant natural forms of earth, water and sky.

The two dozen or so large-scale oil-on-canvas landscapes in this show are joyful, inventive and seemingly as spontaneous as finger paintings. My guess is that they will bring a glow to the most hardened hearts, especially now that summer's riot of hues is fast becoming only a memory.

Espinosa's wields his palette of sherbetlike greens, blues, yellows, pinks and violets with such freewheeling abandon it almost seems a miracle his images don't fly apart from the sheer centripetal force of so much chromatic energy.

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