One of the more surprising facets of the local art scene is how much it continues to surprise. Just when you think you've got a grip on who's who and what's what in the Big Easy art world, something unanticipated always crops up -- something as unexpected as the Treasures from the Amistad Research Center show now on view at the Ogden Museum. Like the city itself, the Amistad can surprise even those who thought they knew it.
Based on the campus of Tulane University, the center houses more than 10 million primary documents, 250,000 photographs and 20,000 books, making it arguably the largest independent research archive of African-American history in the nation, even though most people have probably never heard of it. Even less known are its visual arts holdings, including the 270 late-19th and early-20th century masterworks in its Aaron Douglas Collection, as well as hundreds of others by African, African-American and Caribbean artists, many contemporary. The 53 pieces at the Ogden reflect not only a cross-section of the Amistad's holdings, but also a cross-section of the evolution of African-American art history.
It's a sometimes fitful odyssey that we see in works that so often appear to affirm Europe as a way of coming to terms with American realities and African legacies. For Henry Ossawa Tanner, Europe meant a less-repressive culture, hence his embrace of the French proto-impressionism seen in The Laundress 1885, a gauzy landscape with women doing laundry. He later returned closer to his roots, however, by melding his French manner with a bit of American transcendentalist mysticism. More reflective of the complexity of African-American painting is Hale Woodruff's haunting Southland.
Completed in 1936, Southland is a colorfully fantastic view of a burned-out rural church. Rendered in a rustic style not unlike that of the Southern Scene artists such as our own John McCrady, there is, however, a whiff of violence about the charred and jagged staves amidst the ruins: That turbulent McCradyesque sky hints more of Klan gatherings than church socials. It's an implied violence that harks to German expressionism, an influence on many African-American painters, and Southland reveals uncanny parallels between expressionist and American regionalist painting. Black folk knew all too well the kinds of stresses that spurred the expressionists, and their emphasis on visceral feelings and sharp edges paralleled jazz and blues sensibilities as well the abstract geometry of African art. Southland is emblematic in its embodiment of those things. Ditto Douglas' violently jazzy gouache, Emperor Jones, a spooky, dandified commander-in-chief with boots, epaulets and pistols furtively lurking in the banana trees.
If Douglas embodied the dialog between the raw and the refined, many others were unabashed in their embrace of naive styles. The Arena, Claude Clark's vision of gamecocks being readied for battle somewhere in the Caribbean, is rendered with brusque palette knife strokes that might seem almost crude at first, but which are really precisely evocative. William Henry Johnson's Temptation of Christ, a stylized depiction of Jesus with various tempters, seems no less naive until we note its subtly expressionistic lines. Ironically, St. Augustine Church by Frank Wyley, looks more refined in the calm, lyrical manner of Utrillo or Dufy even though Wyley, a New Orleans porter by day, is one of the few self-taught artists in the show. In all, Treasures is just that, an impressive yet little known trove of masterworks that reflect the full range of complexities underlying African-American art.
Meanwhile, at Stella Jones, complexity turns ethereal in Hughie Lee-Smith's Dream Variations. Enigmatic by any measure, Lee-Smith's lyrical, magic realist cityscapes portray a world where people live together yet apart, disconnected even from themselves. They stand mute as mimes on grand ramparts and promenades in the dazzling summer light as colorful balloons and streamers appear here and there, but the party is over and alienation fills the air.
A much honored trailblazer who died at 84 in 1999, Lee-Smith drew upon his formative experiences and existentialist leanings in the creation of these eerie and unexpected paintings, with their uncanny echoes of DeChirico, Fellini and especially Antonioni, the great Italian master of filmic emptiness and colorful alienation. Confronted with the daunting social impediments of the century, he turned inward to reveal how society as a whole reflects the inner life of individuals, and by doing so he transformed his personal experience into something far more universal in the process.
- The subtly expressionistic lines shine through in William Henry Johnson's Temptation of Christ, one of the many Treasures from the Amistad Research Center.