Figurative art, a style that goes all the way back to the old cave days, seems to be making a comeback. Over the ages, the figure has symbolized everything from ancient Greek gods to R. Crumb's Mr. Natural and the archetypal Americans now seen in Tom Tomorrow's cartoons. Archetypal Americans of another sort appear in the works of Willie Birch, however. A New Orleans native who grew up in the Magnolia housing project, Birch went on to earn a master's degree and eventually a Guggenheim Sculpture Fellowship among other honors over the years.
His works appear in numerous collections including the New Orleans Museum of Art and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, but what is perhaps more impressive is that he never abandoned his roots. A cursory glance around this Earlier Works show of paintings and sculpture from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s reveals that, despite his achievements, he never forgot the folks he grew up with at the Magnolia project and the underclass, yet spirited, culture it represents.
Of course, that culture has its equivalents elsewhere, as Birch observed during his years in New York, and what we see is a mix of uniquely New Orleans and generically inner-city figures. An American Family, 1991 is a near life-size sculpture of a black woman and her two boys. She holds the youngest in her arms while the eldest stands breast high, holding a toy submachine gun. The figures, especially the older kid, are embellished with messages. Some, such as "Product of the New World Order" appear general, but others including "White Kids Commit Suicide; Black Kids Kill Each Other," seem pointed, especially considering the large timepiece hanging around the kid's neck.
In his 1988 painting Johnny Makes the Nightly News, time has run out for a youth who lies sprawled on a street, as bystanders and cops watch blood pour from bullet holes in his lifeless body. The squad cars have NYPD on the door, and the buildings have that embattled New York look, but the rest could just as easily be local. Like the sculptures, the style is folksy, not quite folk art but close to it. In the largish sculpture Uptown Memories, 1995, the tone turns whimsical and ironical. Here, a young black dude sits on a stoop with the address 2889 LaSalle in big block numbers. An old portable radio sits next to him and music notes cover the steps, along with images of vintage Cadillacs, Mardi Gras Indians and their chant: "To Way Pa-Ka-Wah ...". The figure is reading a book, Claude Brown's controversial 1960s classic, Manchild in the Promised Land, and it all resonates a bittersweet nostalgia for a seemingly richer, yet more oppressed, time. Never before exhibited in New Orleans, these works provide some classic examples of Birch's colorful vision.
At Barrister's Gallery, more salt-of-the-earth figures appear in Sean Starwars' wood block prints, but this is an acerbic look at freaky middle-American white folks: plain, pink Midwestern suburbanites and small-town Wal-Mart denizens in their uptight, misguided glory. Uncle Jack is a leering, pink, shirtless, tattooed guy smoking a cig as he proudly dangles a mess of fish on a line. Behind him a squalor of beer bottles, askew picket fences, sinister sheds, Ford pickups and salivating cats complete a picture of the Kansas of eternal neuroses if not serial killers.
Hotdog Party (Starwars has a thing for hotdogs) depicts a celebratory gathering of whitebread Americans clustered around a table with a birthday cake. A middle-age matron, the apparent honoree, holds up some flowered panties as the other pink and pasty celebrants stand stiffly with wooden grins, eyeing the pink hotdogs that await them. In Dancing With Frenchie, a similar crew stiffly fox-trots around a claustrophobic room as a toothy blonde plays kissy-face with a little budgie parakeet that desultorily pecks at her enormous incisors, and the whole scene is like something out of Stephen King, only here the horror is implicit. And we know middle America isn't all like that -- or, well ... at least, not entirely. Rendered in a style somewhere between German expressionism and psychedelic comic book art, Starwars's figures embody the pathos of those who are lost but don't know it.
- Willie Birch's sculpture Uptown Memories -- part of his Earlier Works Exhibit at the Arthur Roger Gallery Project -- evokes a bittersweet nostalgia.