One side of Loring Cornish's 2009 mixed-media work "Target-Shalom"… (Will Kirk, Loring Cornish )
The thematic links established between blacks and Jews are as clear as the glass used in the mosaics displayed in the Jewish Museum of Maryland exhibit "Loring Cornish: In Each Other's Shoes." His intention is to demonstrate how two historically oppressed groups have more in common than they sometimes realize.
A black artist who lives in Baltimore, Cornish was working on civil rights-related artwork several years ago when he met a Jewish couple. As he explains in an exhibit statement: "Everything changed. I realized I would not use my art to talk about the struggles of only one community.
"I was struck by the connections between the struggles of Jews and blacks."
Cornish's dual cultural considerations make it appropriate that many of the pieces he has made in recent years are two-sided panels that stand upright on metal supports.
Visitors to the exhibit are first greeted by "Target/Shalom." The mixed-medium mosaic on one side of the panel incorporates multiple photo-based images of three leaders who were assassinated — John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The mosaic on the panel's other side has pieces of glass spelling out the word "Shalom." There's also a 1960s-era peace sign.
You don't have to search for this artist's message, because he literally spells it out in his work. "4Give" has its title spelled out across the surface of a wall-hanging, single-sided piece. Incidentally, the surface of "4Give" is totally covered with pennies. They glisten every bit as much as the glass in other artworks.
The self-taught artist's approach is to arrange mirror shards, glass beads, pennies and assorted found objects onto flat surfaces, which tend to be reflective and sometimes see-through. There are intuitive and obsessive aspects to this approach, so it's easy to see why Cornish has been described as a so-called "outsider artist."
Although he's definitely working in an idiosyncratic manner, there's just as plainly a humanitarian agenda that leads to a measure of careful planning and craftsmanship in the exhibited work.
One of his most impressive pieces dedicated to the black civil rights movement, the two-sided "Montgomery Bus Boycott," has a surface that is raised owing to the actual crushed shoes that are skillfully affixed to it.
Moreover, these shoes have been sprinkled with red clay from Alabama by way of paying tribute to that famous 1955 bus boycott.
Similarly, the two-sided "March on Washington" honors the 1963 civil rights march by placing dozens of small black-and-white tiles on the shoes totally covering one side. The panel's other side uses glass shards to spell out the title.
Among the artworks primarily devoted to Jewish subject matter, the one-sided panel "Night" has lettering for that book title and its author — Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel — spelled out against a darkly painted, suitably somber backdrop.
Paint drips in brighter colors running down the panel's surface don't so much lighten the mood as they dramatically remind one of the terrible events of the World War II years.
Several other mixed-medium artworks in the show also have strong painterly qualities. It would be nice to see the artist push further with the creative possibilities of combining glass and paint on the same panel.
"Loring Cornish: In Each Other's Shoes" runs through July 17 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, at 15 Lloyd Street in Baltimore. Call 410-732-6400 or go to http://www.jewishmuseummd.org.