Monday, February 25, 2013

African American History Month IV: Contemporary Forms

Lisa Corinne Davis (born 1958), Willfully Whimsical, 2006. Oil and collage on wood panel, 91.4 x 152.4 cm (36 x 60”). The Philadelphia Museum of Art, © 2013 Lisa Corinne Davis. (PMA-4248)

To close out African American History Month, I’ve been looking at the work of Lisa Corinne Davis. What is great about many contemporary artists is that their work often defies any categorization or demonstrative stylistic assignment. For African American artists, this trend actually began—in a major way— in the 1960s with the group Spiral in New York. Spiral, while concerned with furthering African American equality in the entrenched art gallery world, posited that African American artists could represent their culture even if their work was abstract or did not contain overt symbolism of the black struggle for equality in the US.

Davis’ paintings consciously defy the viewer to identify or label forms and force a system of order on a personal idiom of abstraction. Her fluid forms run the gamut of influence from implied geography, exoskeletal forms, spores, and cancer cells to flora and fauna.

Detail of Willfully Whimsical

In Willfully Whimsical, the viewer’s eye is encouraged to explore the complex overlays of forms without coming to a conclusion about what they might mean overall. Being the nerdy art historian that I am, however, I am tempted to interpret some of the grid-like forms with seeing a city or farm land from way above in a plane. That being said, the breadth of diversity of Davis’ forms is truly stunning, as well as her remarkable use of color. Check out more of her work at the Lesley Heller Workspace.

Davis, an African American of mixed heritage, was born in Baltimore. For fourteen years she has taught at Parsons School of Design, Cooper Union, and Yale University. She is currently an associate professor at Hunter College in New York. She lives and works in Brooklyn.

Studio activity:  An imaginative interpretation of an object that is important in everyday life.  Disregard concern about realism, and exaggerate elements of the object to create a unique composition. Study the object carefully and use markers or watercolor to create an interpretation. Use the principles of design to produce a unique composition: balance, pattern, proportion, rhythm and movement, contrast, emphasis, variety and unity.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Personal Journey: 7.1, 9.1; A Community Connection: 9.1; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 9, 11, 12

Monday, February 18, 2013

African American History Month III: Abstraction

Sam Gilliam (born 1933), Untitled, from Three Prints by Sam Gilliam, 2004. Color offset lithograph on paper, 31.1 x 23.7 cm (12 1/4 x 9 3/8”). Philadelphia Museum of Art, © 2013 Sam Gilliam. (PMA-4217A)

Sam Gilliam is one of my favorite artists because of his explorations of color. He is famous for his draped, splattered, unframed canvases with a gorgeous appreciation for color. I’m always curious why artists who are famed for their painted work start producing prints. I guess I can’t envision myself ever setting up a press in my studio (living room)!

Gilliam has extensively explored paper since in the 1970s. His printed works extend his exploration of color and gesture within the restrains of the lithographic process. He has also produced lithographs that incorporate elements of hand-made paper pulp, enlivening the surface of his prints.

Gilliam, who was born in Mississippi, has figured prominently among African American artists committed to abstract art. He has painted in the Color Field style since graduating from the University of Kentucky and moving to Washington, DC in 1962. Color Field painting and Action Painting were the two “schools” of Abstract Expressionism. Color Field painters began to gain more public attention between 1960 and 1962.

Gilliam associated with two other Color Field painters, Morris Louis (1912–1962) and Kenneth Noland (born 1924). Both artists worked in a more painterly manner than most Color Field painters by staining the canvas, often throwing the paint onto the canvas. The surface was not emphasized as in Action Painting, but rather the interaction of the colors.

Other prints from this portfolio:

Untitled, from Three Prints by Sam Gilliam, 2004. Color offset lithograph on paper, 31.1 x 23.7 cm (12 1/4 x 9 3/8”). Philadelphia Museum of Art, © 2013 Sam Gilliam. (PMA-4217B)

Untitled, from Three Prints by Sam Gilliam, 2004. Color offset lithograph on paper, 31.1 x 23.7 cm (12 1/4 x 9 3/8”). Philadelphia Museum of Art, © 2013 Sam Gilliam. (PMA-4217C)

Three Prints series by Sam Gilliam, 2004. Color offset lithograph on paper, each sheet: 31.1 x 23.7 cm (12 1/4 x 9 3/8”). Philadelphia Museum of Art, © 2013 Sam Gilliam. (PMA-4217)

Studio activity: Color harmonies with pastels that imitate the work explored of Gilliam. Emphasize the unity of the color in the background of the work, and explore cool colors. Pay attention to complementary and secondary colors when introducing shapes on the base color. Do not be concerned with creating an image that is realistic. Explore the color harmonies of the color wheel.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 5.29; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 4, 8

Monday, February 11, 2013

African American History Month II: Landscape

Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828–1901, Canada/US), Untitled, ca.1885. Pastel on paper, 19.1 x 26.7 cm (7 1/2" x 10 1/2"). © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-3150)

 In art history, generally, we tend to regard African American art as having its first significant period during the Harlem Renaissance (ca. 1918–1935). Like many periods in art history—just as with women artists—African American artists tend to be overlooked before the late 1800s. Edward M. Bannister is one of those artists I feel is greatly underappreciated. We just acquired this little gem from the Brooklyn Museum. It is so gorgeous. I’m “over the moon” about it, because I have never quite been able to master pastels. I love the nuances of shading and tone. It is so evocative of a hot summer evening, something which I am longing for right about now!

While I often consider Bannister to be part of the romantic realism of 1800s landscape painting, he is clearly a unique artist. Born in New Brunswick, Canada (which abolished slavery in 1830), he received a better education and had more opportunities than blacks in the United States at the time. He was interested in drawing and painting from an early age and in the 1830s visited New York and Boston, seeking out museums and galleries. It was during these trips that he became acquainted with European painting.

Bannister’s mature style was influenced by the French Barbizon painters, a movement that emphasized the spiritual power of nature and use of naturalistic light. He was introduced to this style by the artist William Morris Hunt (1824–1879), who was a close friend to the French Barbizon painter Jean-Francois Millet (1814–1875). The romantic-realist element of Bannister’s work is clearly evident in this lovely little piece. He produced primarily landscapes and regarded nature as a sacred space, never feeling confident in painting the human figure.

Although Bannister suffered prejudice like other African Americans of the time, he lived in Boston and Providence, both liberal centers of abolitionism, where he found greater acceptance as an artist. In 1876 he was the first African American to win a bronze medal from the National Academy in New York. In 1880 he helped form the Providence Art Club, many of whose members were the first faculty of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Check out more works by Bannister at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I’ve got to say, a lot of his work reminds me of the English Romantic landscape painter John Constable (1776–1837)!

Studio activity: Draw an expressive tree. Using pastel or charcoal, draw a tree with dramatic impact, be it on a dark night with moonlight, or a gnarly tree in daylight. Explore the possibilities of darks and lights on the trunk of the tree and in the branches with the two suggested media. Remember to vary the amount of pressure used with the medium to achieve effects of dark and light. Use a paper towel over the finger to blend areas and achieve smooth transitions between dark and light.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.4; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.4, 1.6, 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.26; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 3, 5, 6, 9

Monday, February 4, 2013

African American History Month I: Portraiture

Samella Lewis (born 1924, US), Boy on a Bench, 2007. Color offset lithograph on paper, 69.9 x 51.8 cm (27 1/2" x 20 3/8"). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2013 Samella Lewis. (PMA-4192)

 Once again we honor National African American History Month. I don’t think it can be argued that, despite the fact that we recognize the contemporary accomplishments of African American artists, such as Martin Puryear and Glenn Ligon, art historians still have a long way to go to integrate them into the narrative of “Western” art. I firmly believe that we should weave African American artists into the context of modern American art. For instance, I find this portrait by Samella Lewis as compelling as any of those by, for example, Elizabeth Peyton.

This portrait by Lewis continues the tradition in African American art that expresses the poignancy and irony of the fact that the United States still has a long way to go in equal opportunity. In this sense, she does reflect the traditional view of many African American artists since the 1900s that they should portray the black community as it is: a proud reflection of their way of life. On the other hand, Lewis has isolated this boy against a stark background, perhaps suggesting the continued struggle of African Americans for mere acceptance as Americans. The emphasis on the book may be a clear reference to the fact that very few people, no matter what their race, can achieve anything in American society without a good education. The curved bench on which the young man sits is possibly a reference to one of the great art forms of Africa, the stool.

Asante People (Ghana), Chief’s Stool, 20th century. Wood, 48.25 x 21.6 x 29.21 cm (19" x 8 1/2" x 11 1/2"). Private collection. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-10518).
Lewis was born in New Orleans and studied under Elizabeth Catlett at Dillard University. She attained her BA in art history at Hampton University in 1945. In 1948, she became the first African American woman to receive her doctorate in fine arts and art history at Ohio State University. Since then, she has written extensively on the contributions of African American artists, including the first anthology of African American artists’ writings in 1969. Her 1978 work “Art: African American” was the first survey of African American art. Lewis’ art often documents personal experiences in the black community. In Boy on a Bench, she seems to reflect her academic career and the possibilities she envisions for young African Americans.

Studio activity: Paint a scene from your daily life. Plan your composition in pencil, depicting daily activities. They can be as mundane as going to the supermarket. Using markers, tempera, or watercolor, use dark and light values to create the illusion of three dimensions.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8, 5.25; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 2.7; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.3; A Personal Journey: 1.1; Exploring Visual Design: 10