Selections from 30 Wisconsin African-American artists are surveyed along with "30 Americans" at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
The exhibitions, running in tandem at the Milwaukee Art Museum through September 8, showcase African-American artists. The 30 Americans (actually 31) have broken out nationally and internationally; the Wisconsin 30 presents artists, both rising and established, who live in Wisconsin or have strong ties here. Both exhibitions are important firsts for Milwaukee and the museum. They open a conversation that should continue.
As an artist and art professor practicing in Milwaukee for 30 years, I have come to personally know about a third of the Wisconsin artists and know about many of the others. Mutope Johnson, for example, is a graduate student in the MFA program in UWM’s Art and Design department, and I am on his thesis committee. Beyond that, I knew him as a neighbor in Washington Heights, where we raised our families.
I have watched Mutope’s current series of paintings unfold as he delved deeper to discover the true content of what he wants to express in art. He has evolved from illustrative paintings of the black experience, famous musicians and poets in particular, to more personal paintings of Milwaukee poets and cityscapes. He conveys to all of us the devastation of the Bronzeville neighborhood due to freeway construction. Bronzeville was once the center of black cultural life in Milwaukee. In his series, Johnson recalls its past and notes subsequent efforts to preserve its nearly lost culture by Milwaukee artists, musicians, and poets.
Johnson grew up in Bronzeville and remembered a vibrant, close-knit culture. And he remembered it torn apart as swaths of homes and businesses fell to make room for a freeway for suburbanite’s cars to speed through the city. He saw the heart of Milwaukee’s African American culture disperse and fade. Now he sees a city trying to recreate a “Bronzeville” — as if signs can somehow retrieve culture. Johnson knows what happened to African American culture in Milwaukee, and he knows the best and brightest.
In his oil painting, The Bronzeville Poet Series – Blanche, he puts us face to face with poet and artist Blanche Brown (who is also represented in this show). Her dark, somber eyes stare straight at us. Her African head wrap, boldly patterned in warm golds and reds, frames her sculpted blue-black face. A microphone signals her status as a performer. Her right hand holds a griot’s staff , which reaches to the top of the picture frame, where it is draped with red coral beads. Its brown-gold color leads us to the elevated freeway curving across the gold sky, thick pillars holding it above the old red brick structure below. The building’s turreted corner lets us know this was once a vibrant place. Large white letters trail off into perspective on the side of the building and proclaim:
I ain’t no brand name,
Set of pre-established criteria
Or prewritten …
A lamp post, ringed at the bottom with teddy bears in memoriam of someone lost at the site, cuts off the rest of Blanche’s words. From the white letters on a dark blue ground, we notice rows of words camouflaged in the local colors of the scene. These same words, the boundaries of Old Bronzeville, lurk in all the paintings in the series:
Brown Street on the North
Juneau Avenue on the South
Third Street on the East.
And 12th Street on the West
A contemporary minivan parked on the street signifies that this is today, not a scene from the past.
Interestingly and — and surely deliberately — Richard Lewis’ photograph, Ogden Ramp-Rising, hangs in the bay next to Johnson’s painting. The freeway that destroyed Bronzeville was never completed and stood for years as an enormous elevated off-ramp to the Lower East Side. Finally, the city tore it down to create new real estate in the Park East Corridor. Lewis captures the demolition of the mistake perfectly. Piles of rubble surround the pillars Johnson showed in his painting. In Lewis’ photo, they stand forlornly, rebar exposed, next to a lonely street lamp.
Urban destruction shows up again in Larry Chatman’s large horizontal streetscape, Page and Taylor, a photograph of desolate older buildings gleaming on a sunny day against a bright blue sky. The large red brick home, once elegant and now boarded up, and the squat auto repair garage painted a hopeful bright yellow from top to bottom, stand isolated amid empty lots where homes or businesses had been. Crumbling curbs and sidewalks tell us the city — St. Louis, in this case — doesn’t care about this block anymore.
Iverson White’s Joy’s Window, a black and white photograph from 1982, fits the city theme. The window is shut tight, its mullions and rails sloppily painted to form a wavy grid that frames and divides the desolate view beyond: a few cars parked in an otherwise barren area. No people, no buildings, no trees, no grass. The dirty window veils the scene.
But inside, evidence of Joy — her half empty coffee cup, cigarettes, lighter, and ashtray complete with a stubbed out cigarette feel well used and right at home. A small, stapled book of poems about brothers and sisters lets us know she reads to assuage her isolation. A long-stemmed rose in full bloom in a tall vase on the left counters a forlorn potted plant on the right. A seashell rests beside the tall vase — memory of a sunny day with her family? What may be a photograph album rests beneath the book of poems. She may live in Johnson’s Bronzeville or on Chatman’s Page Avenue.
Her grandson might have owned the Michael Jordan shoes in Vedale Hill’s Bones. The shoes rest shiny and new atop their Air Jordan boxes. Hill has collaged a photograph of the shoes and boxes, all black and white and red, onto an acrylic painting of the corner of a bare room. The cracked plaster and peeling paint, collaged in 3D, reach off both the dull blue walls and the picture plane. The rough floorboards are painted as cracked and warped.
Christopher McIntyre gives us hope. In Higher Thought 2, a giclée print of a black and white photo, McIntyre takes a close-up view of an older brick garage, door shut, juxtaposed with a column of brightly colored arrows pointing to the sky.
Reginald Baylor created a great many small silhouettes of a man and a woman walking in Thirty Times Two. The silhouette technique connects with Kara Walker’s installation in 30 Americans, but also interacts ingeniously with the arches in the west promenade of the Calatrava addition to the museum. Baylor placed the figures like a flipbook — they spiral along, take on perspective, and propel you down and back the long hallway. These figures also show up as an animation on the monitor at the beginning of the exhibition. His exquisitely colorful painting, Mr. and Mrs. Pitch and Peach America, a close up of a young couple, is a highlight of this exhibition.
The urban thread I’ve followed is not an overriding theme for all 30 artists. They are distinct individuals. They create paintings, prints, photographs, collages, fibers, ceramics, and sculpture with subjects ranging from people to places to abstractions. Quality and sophistication vary, but all are heart-felt. Some works are new, some date to the 1980s. The breadth of techniques, styles and interests suggest that little more than geography and ethnicity bind the Wisconsin artists together.
The exhibition design respects that individuality. Each artwork resides in its own space, separated by the pillars of Calatrava’s arches. Sande Robinson, president of the Milwaukee Art Museums African American Alliance, and Lynne Shumow, curator of education at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University organized and selected the Wisconsin 30. The artists do not share a single “Black vision.” Each views common experience through a distinct, selective lens.
In addition to those mentioned above, the show includes work by David L. Anderson, Marlon Banks, Trenton Baylor, Brad Anthony Bernard, Kevin Boatwright, Tyanna Buie, Portia Cobb, Jamal Currie, Paul E. Davis, Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, Mikal Floyd-Pruitt, Sonji Yarbrough Hunt, Sharon Kerry-Harlan, Ras ‘Ammar Nsoroma, Charly Palmer, Sherman Pitts, Leslie Smith, Evelyn Patricia Terry, Babette Wainwright, Della Wells, George Williams. Images and thumbnail biographies of all the artists are available right here.
Lee Ann Garrison is a painter, an associate professor of art at UWM, director of UWM Design Research Institute and currently interim associate dean of UWM’s Lubar School of Business.