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Taurus Burns: Defensive @ Detroit Contemporary

Taurus Burns, install opening reception shot, All images courtesy of Kim Fay except where noted.

The recently reopened Detroit Contemporary, now located at 487 West Alexandrine in Midtown Detroit, presents new work by Taurus Burns in Defensive. Taurus Burns’ primary focus is on figurative realism and the influence of race, politics, and history on the self, family, and community. His autobiographical scenes describe systematic racism through the use of portraiture, anthropomorphism, and allegory. The black and white palette was chosen to represent Burns’ biracial heritage and a distinctively divisive world view resulting from society’s relentless subjugating treatment of the Black race. In this exhibition, Burns explores his personal experiences and struggle to get through that oppressive societal wall.

Taurus Burns, The Graduate 48×48 oil on canvas

Burns was 17 and had just graduated from high school when Rodney King was brutally beaten. Shortly after, the LA riots ignited when a jury acquitted four police officers for the use of excessive force during the arrest of King. As a young biracial man lacking enough life experience and wisdom to fully process these incidents, they were mentally stored until the events of last summer erupted to bring them back to the fore. The Graduate begins to unpack the terror and trauma of what happened in Burns’ youth. In a snapshot, he describes utter hopelessness while an apparent necessity for self-defense takes root. Attention to detail, such as right-handed brass knuckles and a metal railing painted in perfectly executed perspective, allows the viewer to meditate on this life-altering account.

Taurus Burns, The Panther in Me II 22×22 oil on canvas

Burns has been using the panther image, inspired by the Black Panther Party, in recent works. Burns often paints his panther wearing the stripes of a zebra—a term sometimes used to describe children who have one black and one white parent. The Black Panther Party practiced open carry armed citizens’ patrols, or colloquially “cop-watching”, to monitor the behavior of the Oakland Police Department officers and challenge police brutality in the city. The Panther in Me II is heavily textured in thick layers of paint. The reflections in the sliding glass doors are so well rendered that the viewer sees the front yard and a glimpse of shelving and pictures inside the house. The panther icon is subtly placed on a T-shirt while the subject examines a rifle, preparing himself, mentally as much as physically, to protect himself and his home.

Taurus Burns, Training Day II 24×24 oil on canvas

In Training Day II, one generation passes down knowledge and wisdom for responsible gun ownership to the next; the teacher concentrates while the student pays close attention. The thin silhouette of the baseball cap on the older man’s head and the bend in its bill creates a visually tangible object while the wearer’s greying beard indicates he’s the elder of the two practitioners. Since these pictures are monochromatic, the use of shadow and light is critical to effectively communicate the subject and the space it occupies.

Taurus Burns, Triggered 36×22 ink on gouache paper, image courtesy of the artist.

Triggered’s double entendre fires both bullets and trauma in quick succession. This piece moves, the shots rolling across the paper. Ink and gouache’s light touch reveals the artist’s hand at work. The stop-action sequencing suggests the shooter is following a moving target. The work appears unfinished yet effortlessly delivers its warning.

Taurus Burns, Figure Study I 6×6 ink on paper

The figurative studies are lovely in that they afford a window into how Burns works. With very little material, gestural lines with a quick wash of shadow demonstrate the artist’s skill. The figure is in perfect proportion, gently resting her knee on the chair. A swipe of black behind her head grounds the space. The finished artwork is the culmination of years of study and practice. Figurative being one of the most complicated subjects to render well, these drawings indicate Burns is in command of his subject.

George Floyd’s murder was the flashpoint for all of the weight Burns has carried since The Graduate. Nick Cave is another Detroit artist who was moved to action by the Rodney King incident creating his first Soundsuit to hide a person’s physical appearance to escape judgment and the subsequent physical and/or verbal assault. Walking through life trying to at once hide yet defend your intrinsic right to not only exist but flourish is exhausting, maddening. Burns’ current work is polished and refined, thick and expressive. Burns has perfected his narrative and become a masterful storyteller.

Detroit Contemporary new location opening night

After an immersion into theater production and socially conscious endeavors, Aaron Timlin and Detroit Contemporary return, installed in a gorgeous indigenous house in the heart of Midtown Detroit. He’s put together his opening season with artists he’s known and respected for years: Diana Alva exhibited in August, currently showing Taurus Burns, followed by Clinton Snider in October, Ray Katz takes over in November, and fan-favorite the Biennial Actual Size Show is on for December. The gallery is on the first floor of this architectural gem, with plans for theater and multi-media pursuits coming soon to the second floor. This new space is set to be a hive of creative thinking, making, and exhibiting.

As Detroit, and the rest of the country, regains consciousness from not only the pandemic but our collective societal impact on both the physical and mental health of our communities, these two innovators don’t just talk about change. They make it happen.

On view through September 26th at Detroit Contemporary
487 West Alexandrine, Detroit
Artist talk September 25th 4P-6P

2021 All Media Exhibition @ Detroit Artist Market

Detroit Artist Market: All Media Exhibition, 2021, All images courtesy of DAR

The Detroit Artist Market has been mounting this All Media Biennial Exhibition for many years and getting a wide range of work based on the juror and their particular persuasion.  This exhibition’s juror, Valerie Mercer, DIA curator of African American Art, has significant experience in this market between her time at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Artists Market. She says, “The 2021 All Media Exhibition reveals how Detroit artists kept busy during the surge of the pandemic. They created artworks that expressed, through varied artistic approaches, the importance of hope, survival, love, humanity, identity, beauty, community, nature, and culture for their and our lives.”

The exhibition includes nearly seventy artists reflecting a large variety of media. Here are works of art that might give the reader a feel for the variety of work in the exhibition.

Harold Allen, Laocoon, Acrylic on Canvas, 2020

The painting Laocoon by Harold Allen jumps out at the viewer with this abstract expressionistic non-objective action painting that piles these five-inch brush strokes up on top of each other, working from dark tones in the background to bright primary colors in the foreground. He says, “What I want is for the viewer to have is the concept that the shapes and color have a narrative sense about the interaction, activity, and relationship with each other.” Harold Allen earned his BFA from the College of Creative Studies and an MFA from Wayne State University.

Ian Matchett, Jazz, Oil on Canvas, 2021

The painter Ian Matchett captured the sizeable realistic oil portrait from a low angle, as his subject sits on a porch edge with a Covid mask hanging off his ear. The painting Jazz was selected Best in Show and sends a message that figure painting still has some life left in this century-old mainstay of expression.  He says in his statement, “I use a mixture of processes to compose my paintings including reference images, sketches, and when possible collaboration with the subjects. When depicting living people, I prioritize meeting with the subjects of my paintings. We discuss what drives their work, what keeps them going, what I see, what they want to share, and ultimately how I could build all of this into a painting.” Matchett is a graduate of UofM in fine art and social studies, which he continues as a part-time social organizer living and working in Detroit. Most of his work focuses on the connections and continuities between revolutionary movements of the past and present.

Ann Smith, America the Beautiful, Steel, Paper Mash, Wood, Bark, Paint products, 2020

The sculpture located on a base, Ann Smith’s America The Beautiful, is a large free-standing organic plant-like work constructed on a steel armature, shaped with paper mâché and painted colorfully with paint products. She says, “These sculptural accretions are visual artifacts of the thoughts and experiences of one contemporary organism, and investigate my place in the system.” Ann Smith has an art studio in the 333 Midland studio in Highland Park where she is one of twenty-five resident artists, collectively known for their BIG shows. Ann Smith is a graduate of the College for Creative Studies.

Nolan Young, Untitled Relief, Encaustic, Mixed Media, 2021

This young artist, Nolan Young, presents a relief that reminds this writer of Cass Corridor’s work from the 1970s.  It could be described as “Newton-esque.” He says in his statement, “Reconstruction through destruction is a key element to my work.  I use found objects, often discarded and forgotten objects to represent observations I have made about post-industrial Detroit. As a product of this environment, I cut and vandalize these objects to create scenes in which the events of deconstruction is a process for Reconstruction.”

Donita Simpson, Portrait of Carl Wilson, Photograph, 2017

The image Portrait of Carl Wilson demonstrates the photographic quality in this well-known Detroit photographer, Donita Simpson. Best known for her portrait of Gilda Snowden (2014), she has captured the larger-than-life quality in her image of the famous abstract Detroit artist. In the Portrait of Carl Wilson, Simpson frames her subject surrounded by contemporary art, just right off-center, capturing this relaxed expression of Mr. Wilson. For years, Simpson has been documenting Detroit artists in their work and where they live. Donita Simpson earned her BFA and MFA from Wayne State University.

Woodbridge Estates, Acrylic on Panel, 2021

This small oil painting, Woodbridge Estates, is representative of the urban landscape painting by the artist Bryant Tillman. Streets, parked cars, neighborhoods, and low light casting high contrast shadows across these subjects with a fluid palette of paint. Bryant Tillman was a 2013 Kresge Visual Arts Fellow.  https://www.kresgeartsindetroit.org/portfolio-posts/bryant-tillman  The Detroit artist has painted in the City of Detroit for thirty-five years and has given his audiences his indelible style of impressionism, exemplified by the painting of a Honda Accord with his own shadow cast on the car’s body.  Bryant Tillman was awarded the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, New York, NY, in 2017.

Participating Artists:

Jide Aje, Harold Allen, Zoe Beaudry, Robert Beras, Boisali Biswas, Davariz Broaden, Marguerite Carlton, Chris Charron, Sherell Chillik, Winnie Chrzanowski, Glenn Corey, Amelia Currier, Valarie Davis, Edmund Dorsey, Artina Dozier, Laurel Dugan, Jan Filarski, Anne Furnaris, Myles Gallagher, Bill Gemmell, Alex Gilford, Dae Jona Gordon, Albert Gordon, Jabrion Graham, Margaret Griggs, Talese Harris, Steven Hauptman, Carol Jackson, Naigael Johnson, Dawnice Kerchaert, Rosemary Lee, Brant MacLean, Lilly Marinelli, Ian Matchett, David McLemore, David Mikesell, Timothy O’Neill, Bruce Peterson, Marcia Polenberg, Shirley Reasor, Laura Reed, Philip Ross, Angelo Sherman, Donita Simpson, Cameron Singletary, Ann Smith, Nicolena Stubbs, Rosemary Summers, Ron Teachworth, Roger Tertocha, Bryant Tillman, Vasundhara Tolia, Kimberly Tosolt, Alan Vidali, Bryan Wilson, Marsha Wright, Nolan Young, Lori Zurvalec.

Detroit Artist Market: All Media Exhibition, 2021

Detroit Artist Market: All Media Exhibition, through September 11, 2021

 

¿GENDƎR? @ Detroit Artists Market

DAM Gender Exhibition, Installation image, All images courtesy of DAM unless noted.

¿GENDƎR? is an exhibition of how artists depict gender, using their own thoughts and experiences. Some explore outdated gender stereotypes, roles, and sexuality while others confront societal norms. In the 21st century, the idea of gender has had many reformations, and the new lexicon reflects that: cisgender, binary, non-binary, gender fluid, androgyny, transgender, and gender pronouns. The show is but a glimpse into the myriad of possibilities. Curator Gary Eleinko invited artists, who regularly employ the figure in their narratives, to select works that calibrate perception toward the varied facets of gender.

Miroslawa Sztuczka, Under the Skin, 48” x 36” (each panel) mixed tech, collage, oil, acrylic

Miroslawa Sztuczka’s figurative diptych Under The Skin describes a gender spectrum through its striking palette in thickly applied expressive strokes. Those charged marks afford a noticeable contrast to the smoothness of the faces. The melee of figures are arranged in what reads like a glamourous party complete with fame hiding behind sunglasses. The left side of this piece contains those who identify as feminine, recognizable through the generally accepted symbolism of heeled red pumps accessorizing bare legs. To the right, pants resting on flat red shoes are cast as the masculine inverse. Humanity meets in the center blending into the gender fluid, agender and non-binary spectrum. The bold yellow figure exuberantly breaks free from social confines leaving the two mysterious figures at the bottom, symbolizing the constrained concept of binary man/woman only, to be squashed by the liberated throng.

Sue Carman-Vian, Women at Their Heights, 38” x 48”, graphite

Monumental statues of men presented in commanding poses advertising their power and achievements litter parks and public places. The glaring absence of legions of accomplished women yet to be immortalized in a similar manner is the subject of Sue Carman-Vian’s Women At Their Heights. Carman-Vian’s creatively nimble mind imagines a park elevating these uncounted women to their long denied status. The viewer is reminded of a woman’s long-standing relegated role of sexual appeal via high heels while the woman’s placement on a pedestal indicates the importance of one’s social and intellectual accomplishments. This imagery presented in graphite renders the scene dreamlike yet does not wilt. The strong narrative isn’t distracted by the pull of color. Fine detail executed by the direct hand of the artist makes this a very personal epistle.

Judy Eliyas, Untitled (Woman Hanging Stockings In The Bathroom, 42” x 42”, black and white gelatin silver print

Judy Eliyas addresses female roles with a  similar sensibility to Carman-Vian’s, though uses the medium of black and white photography to communicate her story. In Untitled (Woman Hanging Stockings In The Bathroom), Eliyas inserts herself into staged domesticity with a slice of humor by including the viewer who has ambushed the now annoyed subject in a private moment. Eliyas’ images harken to a softer Cindy Sherman-like genre in her autobiographical scenes. The absence of color combined with selected settings and costuming make these images feel dated yet they tackle very contemporary constructs.

Claudia Shepard, E-Male, 48” x 48”, oil on panel

Upon initial glance, E-Male is a bit of a compositional jumble. Traditional portraiture tends to a solitary figure relaxing in the center of the canvas; a sleepy gaze fixed somewhere out of the picture’s range. In this painting, Claudia Shepard has defied convention by drawing on the pioneering photography of Eadweard Muybridge to give us a body in motion. There is a discernible evolution-of-man sequence, representing the progression of the masculine and its changing perceptions. The circle is completed by adding leaping figures illustrating progressive thinking and interpretation of what it means to be male. This includes representation in the nude portrait genre, where the ubiquitous female form has dominated for centuries due to archaic concepts of beauty.

Sabrina Nelson, You Ain’t Never Gonna Fly, approximately 5 ft. x 6 ft pattern paper, thread, milagros, bird cage, tape, gold leaf, doily, black feathers. Image courtesy of Kim Fay.

Sabrina Nelson addresses the figure through what it wears, offering clues to a person’s identity while doubling as personal armor. When choosing to represent the feminine through wardrobe, the dress is a garment that universally registers as female energy. You Ain’t Never Gonna Fly employs fragile patterned tissue paper to illustrate human vulnerability as well as the skin itself. It looks good but can be torn easily. The birdcage represents the womb embellished with a ribbon of crimson hemorrhage. This imagery is significant in that only those who were born female possess a womb with the ability to gestate life. Nelson chooses to suspend her dress aloft, suggesting our self-identity and value precariously dangle on a delicate thin string. At a distance, Nelson’s dresses float and flatter. Upon closer inspection, the complications of negotiating one’s life is woven into the seams and imprinted on the skin.

This show makes a concerted effort to represent the multitude of voices in the gender conversation. A captivating self-portrait by Darryl DeAngelo Terrell remarks on a transgender experience. A thoughtful, fata morgana image by Feather Chiaverini portrays a non-binary account. John Hegarty delivers more traditional but harshly realistic portraiture. These works visually chronicle a sliver of a complex and evolving narrative on who we are as humans, revealing the beauty, tenderness, fragility and brutality that comes with embracing diversity. Many different flowers make up a bouquet. “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” -Mahatma Ghandi.

Participating Artists: Judy Eliyas, Jo Powers, James Stephens, John Hegarty, Teresa Petersen, Claudia Shepard, Bumbo, Darryl DeAngelo Terrell, Feather Chiaverini, Miroslawa Sztuczka, Sue Carman-Vian, Sabrina Nelson, Robert Schefman, Austin J. Brady, Betty Brownlee, Callie Hoskins.

On view May 7-June 5, 2021 at Detroit Artists Market 4719 Woodward Avenue, Detroit

 

 

Wayne Thiebaud @ Toledo Museum of Art

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings @TMA

Wayne Thiebaud, Boston Cremes, 1962. Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 in. Crocker Art Museum Purchase, 1964.22. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

 

Prior to the Toledo Museum of Art’s exhibition Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawings, all my knowledge of the artist came from a handful of images from 20th Century art history books, which mostly featured his paintings of slices of cake behind glass which, like the repetitive Campbell’s Soup cans of Andy Warhol, offered subtle commentary on postwar commercialism and mass-production. But here we’re exposed to the full breadth of his artistic career, which also encompassed still life painting, portraiture, landscapes, cityscapes, and more, and all in a broad array of media. While Thiebaud may have initially made his mark as a staple of Pop-art, this exhibition reveals that his work is surprisingly diverse and rooted in art-historical tradition, and that he had an uncanny ability to translate centuries-old genres into the artistic vocabulary of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Born in 1920, Wayne Thiebaud’s panoramic career has taken many trajectories, and it isn’t over yet.  When he was just sixteen, he took a job at Walt Disney Studios, working as an animator for Pinocchio and a variety of film shorts.  During the Second World War he joined the airforce intending to become a pilot, but was transferred to the Special Services Department where he worked as a map, mural, and poster designer.  After the war, he both studied and taught at Sacramento City College, and fell under the influence of the New York School of postwar abstract expressionists, such as Pollock, Kline, and DeKooning, whose gestural abstract style he  conscientiously began to quote in his own work, as in his very abstract painting The Sea Rolls In (on view in this exhibition). But Thiebaud ultimately  preferred representational art, and in his serialized paintings of frosting-rich plates of cake, he found a way to synthesize the gestural impasto of DeKooning with the illustrative nature of traditional still-life painting.

Filling the entirety of the TMA’s spacious Levis Gallery (and even spilling over into a large adjacent gallery) are chronologically arranged works which span the breadth of Thiebaud’s career, some on view for the first time.  Trucker’s Supper, a work in the TMA’s permanent collection, sets the tone of much of the subsequent work on view; a plate with a slab of roast beef and some french fries inhabits a stark-white indeterminate background space, all the paint rendered in rich imposto (an effect which mostly gets lost in translation when these works are reproduced in books or online).  Thiebaud was a figurative and illustrative artist, but if you step in close, you’ll see passages of brushwork that reveal his admiration for his abstract expressionist counterparts. While his paintings are certainly not hyperrealistic, in applying the paint so thickly some of his paintings of cakes become almost sculptural, and the paint mimics the texture of frosting with a surprising realism bordering on trompe l’oeil trickery.

Wayne Thiebaud, Pies, Pies, Pies, 1961. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Philip L. Ehlert in memory of Dorothy Evelyn Ehlert, 1974.12. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

After firmly (and perhaps unwittingly) establishing his reputation as the painter of cakes and pies, Thiebaud explored figure painting so as not to be defined by a single subject. Like his still lifes, his figures generally inhabit empty white spaces, recalling the portraits of Manet, who often placed his figures against grey, uninhabited space (as he did with his portrait of the French journalist Antonin Proust, a work in the TMA’s collection just a few galleries away).

Wayne Thiebaud, Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book, 1965–1969. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Thiebaud, 1969.21. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Thiebaud was largely unsatisfied with his early attempts at portraiture, however, and in the 1960s he turned toward landscapes and cityscapes, genres he would continue to explore in subsequent decades.  But his treatment of the subject is joyously whimsical.  Thiebaud’s improbably vertical cityscapes and landscapes heave and buckle in a visual parody of the streets of San Francisco and the mountainous terrain surrounding the San Fernando Valley.  Some of these stylized landscapes feature parabola-shaped hills, and seem like playful, almost cartoon-like caricatures of the land (in the 1940s, Thiebaud indeed worked for a while as a cartoonist).

Wayne Thiebaud, Street and Shadow, 1982–1983/1996. Oil on linen, 35 3/4 x 23 3/4 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1996.3. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Wayne Thiebaud, Park Place, 1995. Color etching hand-worked with watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, graphite, and pastel, 29 9/16 x 20 3/4 in. (sheet/image). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.50. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

A generous selection of prints and drawings makes the point that Thiebaud was also a consummate draftsman.  He was interested in printmaking for the entirety of his career, and in Delights (a series of seventeen aquatints), Thiebaud applied the visual textures of hatching and cross-hatching to replicate in a different media the tactile textures we find in all his previous still lifes.  Featuring reductive, scribbled-in  illustrations of cakes, pies, and ice-cream cones, these small prints have the stylized polish we might expect of a New Yorker cartoon (a publication for which Thiebaud illustrated many covers, and subscribers to the magazine will have recently seen his painting Double Scoop grace the August 17, 2020 issue).

Wayne Thiebaud, Dark Chocolates, n.d. Etching hand-worked with colored pencil, 8 7/8 x 10 1/4 in. (plate), 14 3/8 x 15 1/4 in. (sheet). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.36. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Wayne Thiebaud, Cake Window, from Delights series, 1964. Etching, 4 15/16 x 5 7/8 in. (plate), 12 3/4 x 10 3/4 in. (sheet). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.1.13. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The show concludes in an adjacent gallery space which showcases some of his recent work, which is largely a continued exploration of earlier themes and genres.  But here we also find an ensemble of paintings that feature clowns, a new subject in his work.  Stylistically, these subtly parallel his paintings of cake and pies, and much as Thiebaud used paint to replicate the thick frosting on a cake, here it replicates impastoed clown makeup.

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is a diverse and sprawling exhibition, which is exactly the sort of retrospective the artist deserves given the breadth and depth of his oeuvre.  While Thiebaud developed a distinctly recognizable style of his own, he was never bound to a specific theme or genre, and this exhibition triumphantly gives the lie to any notion that Thiebaud was simply the Pop-era painter of cakes and pies.

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is on view at the TMA until May 2, 2021

Tylonn J. Sawyer @ N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Installation image, Tylonn J. Sawyer, N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, 3.2021 All images courtesy of the Detroit Art Review

A new exhibition, White History Month Volume I and II: The Year of the Flood by Detroit native artist Tylonn J. Sawyer is now on display at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art and runs until June 19, 2021.  There is a cadre of contemporary Detroit artists that express themselves using the figure as the dominant source of their subject matter, including Mario Moore, Sydney James, Peter Williams, Tyanna Buie, Senghor Reid, Rashaun Rucker to name only a few, but no one that takes on the visual language associated with the power and oppression leading to the social injustice against African Americans, as does Tylonn J. Sawyer.

He says in his statement, “Within this collective body of work, I’m interested in themes of black motherhood, confident hypocrisies observed in politics, religion, and the overall social order. Culling from the Western History and cultural tropes, the work in this exhibition centers on the distortions in American social fabric.”

Tylonn J. Sawyer, The Birth of Venus, Oil and Mixed Media on canvas, 72 x 48″, 2021

The painting from 1480 by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, depicts the goddess Venus arriving at the shore after her birth when she had emerged from the sea fully-grown. The painting was created during the Italian Renaissance, has dominated western art for seven centuries, and as we see,  Sawyer selects the title to give new meaning to this painting’s title.  When I first experienced the work, I was thinking of Madonna and Child in our contemporary urban world, taking from one of the most popular titles in art history. Here in Sawyer’s work, the standing portrait with child is drenched in symbolism. The American flag is the backdrop for this new mom holding her infant surrounded by butterflies.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Three Graces: Aretha, Oil on canvas, 72 x 60″, 2019

The painting Three Graces: Aretha is a large oil painting that depicts three African American women standing in front of the American flag with these hand-held black and white masks of the performer Aretha Franklin.  This motif is used in several of Sawyer’s paintings; as an example, he uses Nina Simone and Martin Luther King as the subject of masks.  The concept raises a question in the viewer’s mind: What is the idea presented, and where does it come from?

Sawyer explains, “Borrowing from rituals in sub-Saharan Africa where people would place the mask of their ancestors and spiritual deities to seek counsel for contemporary problems, the figures in this exhibition wear masks of civil rights leaders, activists, artists, and political figures. The figures represent metaphoric deities placed on the backdrop of Americana. Using religious metaphor, history, pop culture, and the flag as sacred symbols of America, I am exploring questions of how Blacks exist within the mythology of Americana.”

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Your Founding Fathers Owned Slaves and We Ain’t Forgot that Shit II, Oil on canvas, 48 x 32″, 2021

Tylonn Sawyer must have known that when it came time to apply for graduate school, he wanted to attend a school specializing in representational art, focusing on figurative painting. The New York Academy of Art is a graduate school that combines intensive technical training using methods and techniques that met his goals.  The painting Your Founding Fathers…the work that is tongue-in-cheek where the African American female is working on a portrait of George Washington—reminds us that not everyone is a descendent of the first U.S. president.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Missy Misdemeanor Elliot, Charcoal and glitter on paper, 30 x 22, 2020

Throughout the exhibition, there is a collection of charcoal drawings, 30 x 22″ as in Missy Misdemeanor Elliot, that illustrates portraits from famous contemporary celebrities that remind people that there is much accomplishment in the entertainment business.  Sawyer gives credit where credit is due by featuring these realistic headshots where some are surrounded with gold foil.  Sawyer says “Using Hip-Hop, a music genre and culture as a not only medium for both the audio and historical soundtrack, but also as witness to our participation in history, Year of the Flood, immerses the viewer in a body that  refracts movement through a false sense of stasis, offering various aspects of praise and conflict with and of Americana.”

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Every Now and Then, 84 x 50″, Charcoal and Acrylic on Paper, 2017

The large work, Now and Then, charcoal and acrylic is a field of police painted with flat white acrylic faces, depicts the officers as automated cutout droids crammed together in search of a strategy. The symbolism of a police force lacking the diversity it deserves is one more example of Sawyer’s tools to make his social injustice message loud and clear.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, The King James Version, 30 x 22″, Oil on Paper, 2020

The King James Version, also known as the King James Bible, is an English translation of the Christian Bible for the Church of England in 1604.  Historically,  Britons were enslaved in large numbers, typically by wealthy merchants, who exported indigenous slaves from pre-Roman times and became significant participants in the Atlantic slave trade. The painterly portrait here depicts a contemporary African American draped in the U.S. flag, poking fun at such an event’s impossibility.

Throughout our country’s history, the intersection of art and activism has played a crucial role in social movements against inequality, oppression and injustice.  The authors of the Declaration of Independence outlined a bold vision for America: a nation where there would be equal justice for all. More than two hundred years later, it has yet to be achieved.  Though generations of civil rights activism have led to significant gains in legal, political, social and educational realms, the forced removal of indigenous peoples and the institution of slavery marked the beginnings of a system of racial injustice from which our country has yet to recover.

Tylonn J. Sawyer earned his BFA from Eastern Michigan University and his MFA from the New York Academy of Art.

White History Month Volume I and II: The Year of the Flood at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art runs through June 19, 2021.

 

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