FOLLOWERS OF THE TEXAS CONTEMPORARY art scene know what matters to the state’s Hispanic artists, who have been the focus of a number of museum surveys. But the same cannot be said for Texas’ African American artists, who with the exception of a few standout individuals (Bert Long and Kermit Oliver) have been virtually invisible. This discrepancy is the result of demographics as much as of neglect; Texas now has more than twice as many Hispanics as African Americans, and the gap is steadily widening.
Numbers aside, Texas does have a vibrant community of black artists, and we finally see what is on their minds in “Fresh Visions/New Voices: Emerging African-American Artists in Texas” at the Glassell School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through November 29. Although the show has been second-billed to the museum’s concurrent exhibition by pioneering African American artist Jacob Lawrence and has been relegated to the Glassell School’s unprepossessing walk-through lobby gallery, “Fresh Visions” is a hit. Organized by Houston artists Rick Lowe and Joseph Havel (who is also Glassell’s associate director), this show achieves with minimal means something few major museum productions ever do: It introduces some eye-opening new talent and offers a fresh and provocative perspective on issues of interest to everyone.
Eight of the eleven artists in “Fresh Visions” are from Houston. That majority reflects not only Houston’s status as the state’s art capital but also a local African American arts tradition that began in 1949, when painter John Biggers set up the art department at Texas Southern University (then Texas State University for Negroes). Influenced by Mexican social realists like Diego Rivera, Biggers during the fifties painted ambitious, stirring murals about his race’s struggle for freedom and cultural identity. A compelling teacher as well, Biggers (who is still active) inspired many graduates of his TSU program to make art rooted in their black heritage. Just as important, he also inspired some of his most gifted students to challenge and reject his ethnic emphasis.
The question of how “black” a black artist’s work should be is obviously still important to Texas’ emerging African American artists. But the younger generation (“Fresh Visions” is mostly limited to artists under forty) seems to be less interested in defending polarized positions than in exploring the entire gamut from political agitprop to intensely personal, racially neutral statements.
Bert Samples, the best known of the artists in “Fresh Visions,” graduated from Biggers’ TSU program in 1978. He borrows some of his mentor’s visionary spirituality, but his mysterious, dreamlike paintings owe more to ancient Greek mythology than to African heritage. Populated by nymphs, sea creatures, and man-beast hybrids, Samples’ lyrical allegories combine a pancultural universality with the cryptic musings of the individual psyche.
David McGee, one of the real finds of this exhibition, offers a similarly accomplished mainstream vision. His Welcome to the Tropics takes characteristics of abstract expressionism (the overall nonpictorial composition, black-and-white enamel palette, and paint-slopping recklessness) and combines them with a certain post-modern preciousness (passages of controlled figure drawing and decorative patterns). But McGee’s work, redolent of torpor and decay, has a raw physicality and emotional punch that few post-modern expressionists ever convey. McGee, who grew up in rural Louisiana and attended Prairie View A&M, is an artist to watch.
What is most impressive in “Fresh Visions,” however, is the sophistication that young black artists are bringing to overtly—and also covertly—political works. In today’s murky, often ugly era of race relations, the arguments are waged with symbols (Willie Horton, the beatings of black motorist Rodney King and white trucker Reginald Denny) rather than with legal and moral invocations. Bombarded with and usually personified by symbols and stereotypes, young African American artists have become unusually adept at manipulating them.
Even a direct broadside like Tierney Malone’s Cream of the Crop is constructed with complex ironies. The sculpture consists of three white plaster milk carton shapes standing like a row of gravestones and surrounded by spent shells; the logo “Cream of the Crop” on the side of the cartons is highlighted in white script against the chocolate-brown hue of dried blood. The reference to the murder epidemic currently cutting down young black men is obvious, as is the racially charged irony of referring to the victims in terms evocative of a white elite. But the peaked tops of the cartons-tombstones and the blood-colored crucifixes carved into their sides also suggest churches, and they bring into focus the role of black churches in the struggle for African American lives and souls.
Complex questions are raised by Malone’s simple construction, and the answers may lie in the eye of the beholder: At what point does official indifference to the plight of the inner cities become a peculiarly American form of “ethnic cleansing”? And to what extent should African Americans accept moral responsibility for the violence in their communities?
Like Malone, Michael Charles uses racial stereotypes as a departure point for a far more subtle analysis of black-white issues. Charles’ trademark motif is Little Black Sambo, who regularly intrudes into a series of small-scale images executed with the whimsical stylistic diversity of a post-modern Paul Klee.
Quota Piece is a dark minimalist collage that literally asks, in script, “Why must I always question why I’m here?”—an insight into the kind of questions talented and ambitious blacks ask themselves even as they succeed in a white world.
Equally ambivalent is Charles’ Sold Out Artist, a neo–Van Gogh flower painting in which the blossoms have been replaced by Little Black Sambos. The piece was inspired by a childhood friend who accused Charles of being “white” for aspiring to teach art. (Charles grew up in Saint Martinville, Louisiana, and played basketball at McNeese State University before entering the master of fine arts program at the University of Houston.) But the allusion to Van Gogh’s exorbitantly overpriced flower paintings and the play on words in the title (“sold out,” pejorative on the streets, signifying success in a commercial art gallery) emphasize the tricky navigation between ideals and ambitions required of any artist.
Austin artist Steven Jones, who teaches at the University of Texas, loads his simple welded metal sculptures with complex metaphors. Coors Clan: Death of a Nation is a sort of post-apocalyptic, triangle-shaped barbecue made of iron rebars and bristling with spiky, outward-pointing screws. Surmounted by a metal cross, this diabolic grill is cooking up a six-pack of Coors beer cans, each crowned with a white canvas hood and a white candle.
Aside from reminding us (as David Duke did) that the distance between the burning cross and the backyard barbecue isn’t always that great, Jones also skewers a much more seductive form of coercion. Coors is singled out because of its directors’ well-known conservative politics, but the six-pack is also a metaphor for an entire cult of consumption—beer, soft drinks, athletic shoes, cigarettes—fervently proselytized in the black community by mega-corporations whose idea of community involvement is a billboard campaign.
Just as trenchant, if far less deliberate, is the singular iconography of Ike E. Morgan, a schizophrenic in his early thirties who is confined to Austin State Hospital. In 1984 Morgan was already doing drawings when he was befriended by artist Jim Pirtle, then an orderly at the institution. Initially encouraged to trade his drawings for food, coffee, and cigarettes, Morgan now has hard-cash collectors, and he has arrived at an unusual expression of the link between art and commerce.
He has produced a remarkable series of pastel images of George Washington—not the Washington of the history books but the more abstract demigod found on the one-dollar bill. Morgan has reinterpreted this fundamental American icon dozens of times (seven are included in this show) with uncanny inventiveness. Not only is each Washington stylistically different—ranging from classical simplicity, to the high-contrast neon hues of an Andy Warhol phototransfer, to a welter of abstract, brightly colored planes—but each also has a distinct persona.
In one portrait, drawn with an unsparingly critical, Ensoresque line, George looks suitably careworn and pensive, with lumpy jowls and voluptuous pursed lips. In his intuitive way, Morgan seems to have obtained the secret to success in post-modern America: Invoke the Founding Fathers and worship the almighty dollar.
But the most powerful voice in “Fresh Visions” is that of Dallas installation artist Vicki Meek. Inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Meek has constructed a room-size memorial to a far more terrible and enduring American tragedy. The walls and ceiling of The Crying Room: A Memorial to the Ancestors have been painted black, and the floor is covered with sand and pumice. A row of candles burns along one wall, beneath a white Yoruba ideograph describing the ascension of the dead to the afterlife and reunion with their ancestors.
Another wall provides, in plain white print, the horrifying calculus of the slave trade: “400 years of slavery. 15,000,000 enslaved. 40,000,000 died.” Beneath this are rows of sardine cans imprinted with the romantic-sounding names of the 183 American ships that plied the slave trade, diagrams of manacles, the price of a ten-year-old boy in Texas ($1,545), and finally a shallow trough of water with a few scattered seashells resting on the bottom. Above the water trough is this inscription: “Visitors to Zanzibar were always impressed by the ‘lovely white shells’ covering the bottom of the bay and clearly visible through the gin-clear water. The shells were the bones of slaves …”
Meek’s vision imposes an implacable if rarely considered fact on America’s persistent racial agony: Slavery was a holocaust on the twentieth-century scale, orchestrated by calculated greed rather than ideological madness. Much of America was built on this mass grave— Texas particularly so. In 1825 Stephen F. Austin protested to Mexican authorities that if the government went ahead with its plans to prohibit slavery in Texas, the region would languish in the hands of “poor people.” So determined were the Texas revolutionaries to defend slaveholders’ property rights that the constitution of the Republic of Texas banned free blacks from residing anywhere in the Republic. By 1860 almost one in every three Texans was a slave, and the booming slave economy had made Texas one of the wealthiest states in the union.
Meek’s memorial is based on the conviction that the healing, the true emancipation of America from the legacy of slavery, can’t begin until we have grieved for the dead. It isn’t often that a work of art forces us to look at both past and present in a new light, but Meek’s glaring yet compassionate insight forces us to do just that.