Thursday, October 6, 2016

30 Americans at Tacoma Art Museum

African American Art Since the 1970s
Published in the Weekly Volcano, Oct. 6, 2016
Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Bird On Money," 1981, acrylic and oil on canvas, 66 x 90 inches, courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection
The traveling exhibition 30 Americans from the famed Rubell Family Collection in Miami makes its first West Coast stop at Tacoma Art Museum. With 45 works from 30 of the best African American artists since the 1970s, this is one of the more important shows to ever grace the galleries at TAM. Imagine, if you will, that in the early days of pop art you had been able to see — many for the first time ever — works by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg, Indiana, Rauschenberg, Johns, and Thiebaud. That is the only thing I can imagine that could have a similar impact to this show.
Adding to that, the sheer scale of many of the works is stupendous.
Sadly missing, perhaps because they emerged before the 1970s, are Sam Gilliam, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Martin Puryear, and Gordon Parks. Some of these artists have been around for quite some time, but in many cases have never received their just recognition.
Many are up-and-coming young artists, and few are more up-and-coming than Kehinde Wiley. Wiley’s paintings are a 21st century updating of romantic and baroque art done in monumental scale with brilliant colors and a photo-realist style. Typically, he riffs on classical art by replacing heroic European figures with young black men and women. Wiley’s “Sleep” is the largest painting ever mounted on the walls at TAM. It is 25 feet long and 11 feet tall. It is a reimagining of a painting of the same name by the 18th century French artist Jean Bernard Restout. In this version, a beautiful, Christ-like black man sleeps on a bed of intricate floral patterns, naked but for a sheet draped across his midsection. This painting is mesmerizing because of the rich color, the balance and contrast of figure and background, and the monumental scale. It is one of two Wiley paintings in the show.
“Duck, Duck, Noose,” a sculptural installation by Gary Simmons, depicts in stark simplicity the darkest era in United States history. Nine stools are arranged in a circle 132 inches in diameter. Each of the stools is topped with a Ku Klux Klan hood. Hanging from the ceiling in the middle of this is a noose. Seeing this was like listening to a dying heartbeat.
I was greatly moved by Mickalene Thomas’s acrylic, rhinestone and enamel wall hanging that graces the entrance to one of the two galleries. It is called, “Baby, I Am Ready Now.” In two panels measuring a total 11 feet in width, it pictures a self-possessed and strong woman seated on a bed with bejeweled and densely clashing patterns.  Mickalene is similar to Wiley in her manner of immersing figures into elaborate settings, but her figures are much more in-your-face seductive. They ooze sensuality and pride.
Nina Chanel Abney is an artist new to me. She is young, born in 1982, and just beginning to make a name for herself. Having not previously known her work, I visited her website at and saw scenes of Black life in America with mostly flat figures in solid colors, strong and decorative work exhibiting shades of Jacob Lawrence and Stuart Davis. Her large painting in this show, “Class of 2007,” pictures the students in her class at Parsons The New School of Design. Abney was the only black student in the class. In this painting she pictures all the other students as Black and herself as white. This painting is more expressive in its application of paint than any of her works that I saw online.
There are two works by the late, great Jean-Michel Basquiat. Often symbolic of Black life and critical of commercialism, Basquiat’s paintings are sardonic and angry. The two in this show, “Bird on Money” and “One Million Yen,” are outstanding examples of his work. Had the wall text not told us, not everyone would know that the bird in “Bird on Money” represents the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.
This show is too big and too important to limit my review to one column. I will follow up with a part-two review in mid-October. But even with two reviews I will not be able to touch on more than a small sampling of the art to be seen.

Tacoma Art Museum, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Jan. 15, 2017, $15, third Thursday free 10 a.m.-8 p.m., 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma,

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