Works by contemporary black artists, in a range of styles, on view


critic's corner -- art


Contemporary art by African-Americans, like that of other contemporary artists, is all over the place at the moment, both geographically and stylistically.

Important recent shows have included Sam Gilliam in Washington, Kara Walker and Roy DeCarava in New York, and the quilters of Gee's Bend, Ala., at Atlanta's High Museum of Art.

Riffs and Rhythms: Abstract Forms / Lived Realities, on view at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art on the campus of Morgan State University, surveys a group of six regional contemporary artists who have worked in nonrepresentational styles for many years and whose efforts likewise deserve wider recognition.

The show is the brainchild of Maryland Institute College of Art dean Leslie King-Hammond, who conceived the exhibition in homage to Gilliam and his efforts to enlarge the Lewis Museum's holdings of contemporary artworks by African-Americans.

The term "abstract" in the show's title admittedly is broadly applied and embraces an astonishing diversity of practices, from the precise geometric abstractions of painter Jose Mapily, which recall Mondrian's elegantly arranged colored squares, to sculptor Maren Hassinger's conceptually based installations and newspaper assemblages, which serve double duty as costumes for her performance art.

Mapily, who has worked as both an artist and an architect, creates gridlike paintings out of white dots on a dark ground that resemble schematic drawings of buildings or circuit diagrams for electrical components. The pieces somehow suggest, but don't really describe, the outlines of a cityscape illuminated by lights glowing in the windows of office towers at night.

Hassinger, who last year created an elaborate newspaper-assemblage cum video installation for School 33 Art Center based on the Faulknerian complexity of her own family history, weighs in here with another paper-based installation titled Sandbox.

The work consists of a standard wooden frame for a child's sandbox, but instead of sand, the box is filled with heaps of junk mail pitching everything from local department store sales to credit card applications. It's a tongue-in-cheek reminder of how the childhood abundance of play inexorably morphs into the workaday adult world of paying the bills.

Hassinger is also represented by a couple of costume pieces made of twisted strands of newspaper, one an elaborate anklet of the type worn by traditional African dancers, the other a portrait mask and pair of skirts that mimic the texture of the dancers' raffia gowns.

The show includes two artists associated with the Chicago-based African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AFRICOBRA), who during the 1970s developed a distinctive visual aesthetic based on African-American history and culture.

Fabric artist Frank Smith creates quiltlike abstract wall pieces that recall both the syncopated rhythms of jazz and the colorful designs of African textiles.

Painter James Phillips also draws on African textiles for inspiration, but his works are much more densely ordered, formally complex and labor intensive. In these compositions, figurative and decorative elements vie for attention while retaining the apparent simplicity of a colored paper cut-out by Matisse.

The show also presents Danny Simmons' oil-and-wax paintings that recall episodes in African-American history and Oletha DeVane's mixed-media works on paper, including a fabulous artist's book, titled Sacred Geometry, inspired by the Greek worship of the body as the perfect geometric shape.

The artist completed it after a sojourn around the Mediterranean several years ago in collaboration with poet Donna Denize.

Riffs and Rhythms runs through April 23. The museum is in the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center at 2201 Argonne Drive. Call 443-885-3030.

Debuting in New York

At the other end of the spectrum from abstraction lies realism, the style adopted by Baltimore painter Tonya Ingersol, who is having her debut one-person show in New York this month at the June Kelly Gallery in SoHo.

Allegorical Landscapes: New Paintings presents seven of Ingersol's large-scale oil-on-wood panel paintings, each measuring roughly 8 feet by 6 feet. All the works are inspired by Greek mythology as related in Ovid's Metamorphosis, using African-American figures to retell the stories of various gods, goddesses and mortal humans.

The show reveals Ingersol as a keen observer of the natural world -- her flora and fauna show the same meticulous attention to detail as the same objects do in a Renaissance tapestry -- and a master of the human figure.

My personal favorite from the show is Ingersol's Three Graces (2004), a lovely re-imagining of the classical trio of goddesses representing joy, charm and beauty, posed wearing floral wreaths and colorful long gowns in an autumnal Maryland landscape with billowing white clouds. The picture has a quality of monumental permanence that is quite impossible to appreciate fully in reproduction, and it's full of clever tricks of perspective that make the nearly life-size figures seem even larger.

The show runs through April 18. The gallery is at 591 Broadway in New York. Call 212-226-1660.

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