Thursday, February 14, 2008

"I am in the garden..."

The calendar on the wall of my
grandfather’s Room, points to a July
many years ago
I am in the garden looking at the
green stem of that tiger lily undulat-
ing like a small garter snake.

Grandfather tells me my grandmother
cut it
To wear to church on her white dress
‘It will be here again when you return
next year’ But the tiger lilies have
the trains no longer pass by ….

“I am in the garden…”: African American Art from the Collections is now open at the Georgia Museum of Art until March 16th.

Romare Bearden, reminiscing in a poem about his childhood in the South, draws upon imagery from his past and his experiences. During the twentieth century, numerous African American artists, including Bearden, created art that centers on issues of race, cultural identity, memory, emotion, history, and gender. “I am in the garden…” features works fashioned by a selection of these African American artists. The exhibition incorporates key images from the Georgia Museum of Art’s permanent collection, including mixed media works and paintings by Bearden and Jacob Lawrence influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. Other works in this exhibition are by accomplished mid-career artists, including Beverly Buchanan, Sam Gilliam, and Richard H. Hunt. Contemporary image-makers Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker address issues related to racism, identity, and feminism. The exhibition also includes works created by southern self-taught artists such as Willie Jinks, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, and Purvis Young.

Using the permanent collection as a starting point, including the original gift to the Georgia Museum of Art from Alfred Holbrook, purchases in the 1980s and 1990s, and the recent gifts by Carl Mullis, the exhibition also employs several loans. The Georgia Museum of Art is especially grateful to Paul R. Jones for the loan of works from his personal collection and to Giuliano Ceseri and Jason Schoen for the ongoing, extended loan of works from their respective collections.

Themes? How about some "dualities": past/future; emotion/reason; memory/reality; North/South; black/white; ancient/contemporary; rich/poor; urban/rural; personal/universal.

Other themes? The now, ever-popular “identity politics”; racism; gender; sexuality; defining “freedom”; abstraction and meaning.

In 1968, Ralph Ellison wrote an introduction for an exhibition catalogue and discussion Bearden’s art. A few lines from Ellison’s essay: “For as Bearden demonstrated here so powerfully, it is of the true artist’s nature and mode of action to dominate all the world and time through technique and vision. His mission is to bring a new visual order into the world, and through his art he seeks to reset society’s clock by imposing upon it his own method of defining the times. …Bearden’s art is therefore not only an affirmation of his own freedom and responsibility as an individual and artist, it is an affirmation of the irrelevance of the notion of race as a limiting force in the arts. These are works of a man possessing a rare lucidity of vision.”

My favorite work in the display? William Henry Johnson's High Peaks from the 1930s.

In twentieth-century American art history, William Henry Johnson serves as an example of an American “van Gogh,” both in style and in personal biography. Born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1901, Johnson grew up in poverty and left his native state for New York in 1919. Eventually, he enrolled at the National Academy of Design, studying with Charles Hawthorne. In 1926, with Hawthorne’s help, Johnson went to Paris and became intrigued by the work of post-Impressionists like Paul Gauguin and Chaim Soutine. After traveling throughout Europe, Johnson returned to the United States in 1929. He exhibited his work in his hometown, but was unjustly arrested, fled, and did not return to South Carolina for fourteen years. He again traveled to Europe, living in Denmark and Tunisia with his artist wife, Holcha Krake. In 1938, the couple moved back to New York, and he was hired by the Works Progress Administration to teach at a community art center.

In early 1943, following his wife’s death from breast cancer, Johnson began a gradual decline into severe mental illness. In 1946, he went to Denmark to visit his wife’s family and sojourned to Norway for an exhibition. Johnson was found confused and lost in the streets of Oslo. He returned to New York, was hospitalized, and never painted again. He died in 1970.

High Peaks was likely painted in Europe during the 1930s. The work, rich with the heavy use of paint on the surface of the canvas, reflects the style of the German Expressionists and the French post-Impressionists Johnson found so captivating. High Peaks has a powerful, intense use of color, and Johnson’s individual brushstrokes heighten its emotional nature.