Modern American Printmaking @ DIA

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking @ the Detroit Institute of Arts

Installation image, Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking, at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking brings together over 75 works of art, from multiple collections, to celebrate and emphasize Blackburn’s unrelenting dedication to a collaborative artistic community and the accessibility of art making to all. The exhibition chronicles Blackburn’s life through visuals and text. Placards strategically placed throughout the exhibit offer breaks between the works and section the pieces based on relevant themes. They also provide visitors a storyline through the exhibit, rather than overwhelming them with a large haphazard grouping of works. At the onset, viewers learn about Blackburn’s beginnings. He was born the child of Jamaican immigrants in Harlem, New York just as the Harlem Renaissance was beginning. New York was also still experiencing the transitional period of the Great Migration, which together brought an influx of Black people who relocated to New York from many other areas of the country.

African American artist Charles Alston was part of the movement to New York from the south.  He played a crucial role in educating Blackburn as a teen and encouraging his interest in art and activism. Similar to Alston, a number of other artists played a role in Blackburn’s artistic development and he, in turn, maintained those values and continually aided other artists throughout the remainder of his life. Blackburn’s establishment of The Printmaking Workshop in 1947 changed the trajectory of many artists’ lives by creating a community and offering a space for artists of various skill levels to learn from each other, experiment, and perfect their technique.

Charles Alston, Young Boy, Charcoal, 1937

The exhibition ebbs and flows through multiple spaces, leading the viewer through a journey and introducing new artists and artistic techniques with every turn. Within the first gallery space is a very distinct 1949 Charles White lithograph, “John Brown”. True to his aesthetic and the conceptual nature of many of his lithographs, the rendering of the solo figure in the work depicts White’s graphic style, brilliant use of light and shadow, and poignant subject matter. John Brown was an American abolitionist leader from the nineteenth century who dedicated his life to ending slavery. Brown’s legacy is two-fold. Within many Black and abolitionist communities, he is thought of as a martyr because of his participation in the assault on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he sacrificed his life. However, he is often criticized as well because of his use of violence within his abolitionist tactics. White’s piece was printed by Blackburn and honors Brown by including the seriousness, determination, and visionary nature that’s applauded as part of his legacy. White and Blackburn maintained a relationship as friends throughout their careers and Blackburn printed many of White’s works.

Charles White, John Brown, Lithograph, 1949

A great majority of the works in the exhibition were printed on paper through linocut, woodcut, and lithograph processes, yet Faith Ringgold’s 1984 “Death of Apartheid #2” was made by intaglio printing with a relief roll on canvas. From the beginning of her career, Ringgold  addressed social issues, often centering on overt and underlying racism. The abstraction in this work makes it particularly interesting because Ringgold’s most well-known works are predominantly figurative. The print also stands out visually because of the simplicity of the curvilinear aspects, the red color choice, and the layering technique used. Nonetheless, the commonality of interests in activism throughout the developed printmaking community was pronounced within many of the artists’ work, including Blackburn’s.

Faith Ringgold, Death of Apartheid #2, Intaglio with relief roll on canvas, 1984

Although small in scale, one work that is prominent within the context of the exhibition is Blackburn’s “Refugees (aka People in a Boat)”. Blackburn printed the work during his late teen years, already displaying his craftsmanship and interest in commentary around complex social issues. The work portrays a group of individuals in a small boat navigating calm water, yet it is subject to multiple interpretive possibilities. The ripples surrounding the paddle boat hint at movement and the simplified landscape offers information regarding the distance between the group and the shore. Their previous location and destination are left as mysteries to the viewer.  Blackburn gives visitors an idea of subject matter and social relevance with the title, leaving the context and more conceptual understandings in the hands of the audience.

Robert Blackburn, Refugees (aka People in a Boat), Lithograph, 1938

Just ten years later, Blackburn’s work experienced a shift to more abstracted forms, which remained a focus throughout the rest of his career. With his friend and teacher, Ronald Joseph, Blackburn began creating vibrant, abstract gouache paintings based on still lifes consisting of everyday objects. As he continued, Blackburn’s works became more abstracted. Many Black artists made a similar decision around the same time, contradicting the expectation of Black artists to concentrate their work solely on addressing social and cultural issues. Joseph and Blackburn instead experimented with the power and visual language of shape, color, and line.

Robert Blackburn, Blue Things, Color Woodcut, 1963-1970

Mildred Thompson’s “The Third Mystery” is installed with no additional descriptive text. Assumptions can be made regarding Thompson’s intention and the meaning of the work, yet what’s most important is always the work itself. What makes the piece stunning and arresting is the centralized grayscale merging within abstracted forms, penetrated from multiple directions and entry points by Thompson’s signature linework.

Mildred Thompson, The Third Mystery, Intaglio, 1990

In keeping with the tradition of Blackburn’s desire to teach and make the process of creating accessible to all, brief definitions, descriptions, and examples of artistic techniques are included in the exhibition. Two small adjacent gallery spaces in the center of the exhibition examine woodcuts and etchings. The two separate spaces showcase works by members of Blackburn’s artists’ community as examples of each process.

Ed Clark, Yucatán Series, Etching, 1977

The exhibition culminates with a color lithograph bookending the show. It highlights the most significant aspect and the connecting thread of the exhibit, Robert Blackburn himself. The image of Blackburn printing from a lithographic stone was created by African American Detroit-born artist Ron Adams the year before Blackburn’s death. After Blackburn’s life of transforming the printmaking realm, investing in the careers of some of the most well-known artists of the last century, and ultimately proving the importance of artistic communities, Adams’s print is a perfect tribute, honoring Blackburn at the end of his life.

Ron Adams, Blackburn, color lithograph on tan paper, 2002

Of course, the exhibition features multiple incredibly brilliant works by Blackburn. Along with his innovation as a printmaker, an overarching theme of the exhibition is his unwavering dedication to the many artists who impacted his life and the lasting printmaking community they became. He wasn’t satisfied with receiving opportunities to create artwork for himself. He wanted printmaking to be available to all artists, at any skill level, and that’s exactly what he created through The Printmaking Workshop over seventy years ago

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and curated by Deborah Cullen. It will remain on view at the DIA through Sunday, September 5, 2021.

New Work / New Year @ David Klein Gallery

Installation image, New Work, New Year, 2021

If it has been hard to survive 2020, that has been especially true for the art community. Artists have had to be concerned with their health, livelihood and families, endure a deadly virus and experience a tumultuous political environment that heightened the anxiety in everyone’s lives.  Art exhibitions struggled to even exist in 2020, while some opted to be exclusively virtual. The David Klein galleries have consistently staged openings, albeit with masks, social distancing and staggered appointments.

The David Klein Gallery’s Director of Contemporary Art, Christine Schefman, has started off the new year by looking back at 2020 with an exhibition statement about this new show. She says, “2020 was a year of uncertainty, but one thing we know that remained constant was artists making art. Maybe there was a pause at the beginning, but ultimately artists found the inspiration to keep moving forward. Whether they continued to explore an ongoing body of work or create something entirely new, their practice endured.”

In this exhibition of fifteen artists, the first two artists I will mention are Robert Schefman and Kelly Reemtsen, both clearly figurative painters with a depth of experience yet whose work is completely juxtaposed.

Schefman talks about choosing an illusionist narrative while avoiding the term photorealism, and he has worked hard at finding a story that uses the human form as his subject.  Over the years, his technique has been impeccable. He has made a point to find a theme, a secret or a mystery that dominates these large oil paintings, and he obviously devotes time to the color pallet and composition.  Reemtsen on the other hand, who has spent time on the west coast and is drawn to Wayne Thiebaud’s work, creates tension between a headless female figure in a pop art patterned dress grasping tradesmen tools; be it a saw, a shovel or an ax. Schefman’s oil paint is carefully and smoothly applied with photo accuracy. In contrast, Reemtsen’s oil paint is very thick and applied loosely at times with a palette knife to the background, while the dresses are always A-line designs cinched at the waist. Her work shouts out contemporary like Balthus, while Schefman’s work is soft and traditionally romantic like Vermeer. It is noted here that the figure has become popular as of late, but it is always a challenge to follow in the steps of DaVinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Ingres, Manet, Klimt, Sargent and Picasso, to name just a few.

Robert Schefman, Lola, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40″, 2020

Robert Schefman’s last solo exhibition at the David Klein Gallery in November 2019 focused on a series of works exploring hidden secrets sent to him via social media with no names attached. He leaves that process during 2020 with Lola, an aerial view of a Formula 4 race car as a crew member changes a tire while a figure holds the umbrella protecting the driver from heat or approaching rainfall.  It fits nicely into his illusionistic narrative. The strength here is the point of view, the use of color and the construction of a compelling composition. Although it gleams with the craft of realism and the precise replication of photo imagery, it is likely the nostalgia of this moment in time draws the artist back to an earlier period in his life.

Robert Schefman earned a B.F.A. from Michigan State University and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa.

Kelly Reemtsen, Bits and Pieces, Oil on Panel, 36 x 36″, 2020

Kelly Reemtsen gives us her now-familiar depiction of a young woman in retro skirts carrying an ax, with her trademark being pictorially cropped at the head.  Although there have been large paintings in the past that include the female’s head, the work here, Bits and Pieces, is repeated both in composition and the thick, painterly impasto of oil paint.  Set against a white background, the viewer is forced into the tension between the dress pattern and the manly grasp of the color-coordinated ax. Perhaps an early interest in fashion found its way into her mindset, and the niche was oddly a new “post-feminist” expression. The other element that keeps repeating itself is the reoccurring geometric patterns, both on the dresses and in the backgrounds.

Kelly Reemtsen earned her undergraduate degree from Central Michigan University and pursues her graduate degree at California State University at Long Beach.

Cooper Holoweski, Late Stage, New Age Process, Mixed Media, 40 x 24″, 2020

In this exhibition, Cooper Holoweski’s Mixed Media pieces were new, fresh and fascinating. Based on a composition of photo illusions of objects, human parts and abstract forms, the work has an underlying grid that supports the vertical work on paper.  Although the work was a new experience, the name was familiar. I had written  about his video work at the Center Gallery, College of Creative Studies, in 2017.  What still fits from the review is his mention of tension, contradiction and counterbalance, elements present in this new mixed media collage imagery. These mixed media prints are highly technical in their creation, something described as New Age Process. Made on Homasote, a cellulose-based fiber wallboard, several gesso coats are applied, and Holoweski uses a laser engraver to obtain a variety of effects creating his archival inkjet print.

Cooper Holoweski earned a B.F.A from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Mark Sengbusch, Singin in the Rain, Acylic on Plywood, 25 x 31″, 2020

Mark Sengbusch’s work is an assemblage of pieces of colorfully painted shapes made from wood that are arranged on a grid with a solid colored background. From his biography, it appears as though the types of forms he uses have been influenced by the architecture he experienced in his travels to Europe and the Middle East. The feeling one gets relies on the pattern created by these new and unusual shapes in this work, Singin in the Rain, which is a combination of secondary color and repetition. These design elements’ craftsmanship extends to the surrounding border and frame, making it an integrated part of the work. He refers to asemic approaches to writing with no semantic content but rather symbolism that is open to subjective interpretations.

Mark Sengbusch earned his B.F.A. from the College for Creative Studies and his M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Ricky Weaver, My First Mind Tells Me, Archival pigment print, 30 x 45″, 2020

Ricky Weaver’s work employs magical realism to investigate the moment. She uses images of herself to capture a metaphysical sense of reality in her work.  In the work My First Mind Tells Me, she recreates a moment with multiples of the same person while shifting to composition and color aesthetics. The attraction here is bringing the viewer into her world and keeping them questioning where the reality lies. The theme that resonates throughout her work is the black female and her relationship with faith. Much of her work is black & white images, but My First Mind Tells Me is rendered in full color. Repeatedly, she investigates the possibilities of these moments and forces the viewer to imagine a variety of alternatives. It is refreshing to experience an artist so grounded in her beliefs that it transfers to her work.

Ricky Weaver earned her B.F.A. in Photography from Eastern Michigan University and an M.F.A. in photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Scott Hocking is well known for installations both in the gallery and on sites throughout the Detroit Metro region and beyond.  In answering what an artist did in 2020, he responds with a digital film, Kayaking Through the Quarantimes. He mentions in his statement, “Over the years, the experience of kayaking has developed into a full-blown obsession, a much-needed connection to nature and quietude, an art project in itself.”

 

The exhibition includes the work of: Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Susan Campbell, Matthew Hawtin, Scott Hocking, Cooper Holoweski, Kim McCarthy, Mario Moore, Marianna Olague, Jason Patterson, Kelly Reemtsen, Lauren Semivan, Mark Sengbusch, Robert Schefman, Rosalind Tallmadge and Ricky Weaver.

Hourly time slots are available with a maximum of 20 visitors per hour. Plan your visit to the gallery at www.exploretock.com/davidkleingallerydetroit For further information, please contact: Christine Schefman Director of Contemporary Art: christine@dkgallery.com

InterStates of Mind @ MSU Broad

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

In 1928, Ford Motor Company acquired 2.5 million acres of forest in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon with the intent of supplying the company’s Michigan factories with a reliable supply of cheap rubber. Here it erected Fordlandia, a pop-up town populated by locals who, coaxed by competitive wages, worked in the employ of Ford Motors. Ford aggressively pushed American culture onto the workers, mandating, among other things, required poetry readings (in English), community sing-alongs, and American cuisine. In 1930, the workers revolted, and the Brazilian army had to restore order.  The endeavor was a failure.  The region wasn’t sufficiently conducive to growing rubber trees, and by 1934, the project was abandoned; however,  Fordlandia’s buildings still stand, and the town attained immortality as a major inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World.  Fordlandia is just one of many examples of the automotive industry’s influence on culture presented in the MSU Broad’s excellent exhibition InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile.

This large exhibition fills the entirety of the Broad’s second floor gallery suite with a multimedia selection of art and ephemera largely (though not entirely) selected from its own collection. While it sometimes addresses the automobile industry in broad strokes, the exhibition also addresses how the automotive industry shaped Lansing in particular. InterStates of Mind gives special attention to some of the economic, environmental, and social problems exacerbated—if not always directly caused—by the automotive industry.

InterStates opens with a trilogy of early, iconic films which emphatically proclaimed an unfettered optimism of the automobile (and in technology in general) to realize an earthly American utopia.  In 1939, for the New York World’s Fair, General Motors constructed an impressively large animated diorama of a city of the future, at the heart of which was the automotive industry and the highway system.  The 23 minute film Futurama slowly pans through this sprawling model (designed by GM’s Norman Bel Geddes) as a narrator envisions a future in which science, technology, and the highway system are harnessed to create an ideal society. Though many of the film’s predictions indeed came true, its flamboyant optimism in a technology-driven utopia certainly rings hollow in retrospect.

Master Hands, a film also produced by General Motors, artfully walks the viewer through the manufacturing process of a 1936 Chevrolet.  Underscored by a triumphant, Wagneresque soundtrack composed by Samuel Benavie and performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the film’s visuals really are aesthetically beautiful, and the music engages with action on the assembly line in a perfectly coordinated dance. Master Hands showcases the undeniable ingenuity behind the assembly process.

As a foil to the optimism of these films, InterStates also presents an ensemble of the socially poignant photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and other photographers whose work documented the lives of those worst hit by the Great Depression.  “There’s no way like the American way,” a billboard loudly proclaims in a photograph by Arthur Rothstein, though the blighted buildings in the background brutally undercut this cheerful sentiment.  While some of these photographs don’t directly reference the automobile itself, they collectively push against the utopic, concurrent visions of Futurama.  

Arthur Rothstein, Sign, Birmingham, Alabama, 1937, printed 1987. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase

Dorothea Lange, Gas station. Kern County, California, 1939, printed 1987. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase.

This exhibit gives prominence to an ensemble of eight large photographs by Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin, whose conceptual project When Two Places Look Alike addresses the overtly colonialist nature of Fordlandia.  Many of the American-style homes built for the workers in Fordlandia still stand, and Tossin’s photographs wittily draw visual parallels between the architecture of Fordlandia’s homes with those of Alberta, Michigan, also a company town established by Ford in the 1930s.

Clarissa Tossin, When two places look alike, 2012. Courtesy the artist, Luisa Strina Gallery São Paulo, and Commonwealth Council, Los Angeles.

Given Lansing’s prominence in the automotive industry, it seems fitting that this show localizes much of its content.  A generous portion of the exhibit explores the social impact of I-496, the expressway which serves as a main artery Eastward and Westward through Lansing, and the construction of which displaced a mostly African-American population from their homes.  A massive enlargement of an aerial photograph shows a stretch of these houses prior to the construction of the expressway, hinting at the many lives that it would seriously interrupt.

While much of this show examines the automobile’s influence through a jaundiced eye, it certainly refrains from being drearily pessimistic.  There’s a whole ensemble of photographs highlighting the phenomena of the roadside attraction.  And some works celebrate the visual potential of the materiality of the automobile itself, such as Chakaia Booker’s rubber sculptures that playfully flaunt the aesthetic potential of used tires, which she manages to cut, sculpt, twist, and manipulate into forms that look almost organic.

InterStates of mind offers a considered and thoughtful re-assessment of the automotive industry’s impact on society.  Though this exhibit is certainly informative (expect to find yourself reading your way through large parts of this exhibit), it’s also visually rewarding, offering visitors a veritable cornucopia of works which snugly make the most of the Broad’s exhibition space.  While these works certainly aren’t disparaging of the automobile’s influence on culture, they collectively approach the subject with an honest ambivalence, and the early 20th Century visions and promises of a technology-driven American utopia, in retrospect, ultimately seem to ring hollow.

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

 

Video courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum
InterStates of Mind is currently on view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, and runs through August 2021.  The exhibition is free, but to ensure a safe experience timed tickets must be ordered in advance.

Visual Citizenship @ MSU Broad Museum

Visual Citizenship, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

The exhibition Visual Citizenship, on view at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum through December 26, is a considered show that comprises politically-charged prints and photographs that snugly fill the museum’s trapezoidal Collections Gallery.  Its title comes from scholar, author, and filmmaker Ariella Azoulay, who argues that image-viewing is an active civic engagement, and Visual Citizenship explores the implied moral, ethical, and civic questions and obligations presented when a viewer confronts images, particularly images of injustice. The show is thoughtful, timely, and visually satisfying, and it includes artists whose names carry some real weight in the art-world, such as Kathe Kollwitz, William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, and others.

The advents of photography and printing democratized the image to a degree unparalleled until the age of the internet.  They’re both relatively inexpensive media, and they don’t rely on moneyed and powerful patrons.  Furthermore, photos and prints are easily reproduceable, and together they helped introduce a new visual language of civic and political discourse.

Francisco Goya wasn’t the first artist to harness printmaking to document social and political injustice, but he’s certainly among the most famous.  His series of just over 80 prints which comprise his Disasters of War relay in first-person perspective and with unrelenting honesty the gritty and violent events that transpired when Napoleon’s army invaded Spain.  The show’s informational panels aptly compare Goya’s etchings to the photographs captured by a modern-day war correspondent.  On view is an etching from his Disasters, showing hangmen leading prisoners to a makeshift scaffold where several dead bodies already swing.  There are also several etchings from his satirical Follies series.  These images, never published in Goya’s lifetime, are freighted with dark and surreal imagery that seems to anticipate by a hundred years the style of the early 20th century symbolists.  Goya’s work is rarely pleasant, but it’s a welcome foil to much of the fawningly polite Napoleonic propaganda produced by the likes of Jacques Louis David or Antoine-Jean Gros.

Duro es el paso! (The way is hard!), from The Disasters of War, 1810-14. Etching and aquatint, 9 1/2 x 12 7/8 inches. MSU purchase, funded by the MSU Development Fund 64.76

Perhaps the most arresting and uncomfortable ensemble of images in the show is the Erased Lynchings series by conceptual artist Ken Gonzales-Day.  Gonzales-Day scanned images from actual postcards spanning from 1870 to 1940, all of which depicted photographs of the lynching of Lantin Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.  He then digitally erased the victims, leaving only the spectators, who now become the subject of the image.  The series addresses the role that bystanders and spectators play during social and political atrocities, and also the erasure of uncomfortable moments from our national narrative.

Erased Lynchings, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Lynching of Frank MacManus, Minneapolis, MN, 1882, from Erased Lynchings 2006-2019.  Archival inkjet print on rag paper mounted on cardstock, 6 x 4 ½ inches. MSU purchase, funded by the Nellie M. Loomis Endowment in memory of Martha Jane Loomis, 2019.17.1-5

A generous selection of photographs of significant political marches, rallies, and protests highlights the role that documentary photography played in making people aware of the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps something easily taken for granted now that anyone with a smartphone and a social media account is a potential lay-photojournalist.  These images include an ensemble by Leonard Freed, a photojournalist whose seminal work Black in White America (1968) documented the Civil Rights Movement with sensitivity and empathy, emphasizing the humanity of his subjects rather than the acts of violence and brutality they endured—the reverse of what Susan Sontag referred to in On Photography as the “atrocity exhibition,” which have a danger of becoming counterproductive to their cause.  Here, a selection of Freed’s photographs variously document a civil rights protest in Brooklyn, the historic 1963 March on Washington, and the 20th Anniversary March on Washington in 1983.

1963, Washington D.C., USA (March on Washington, 8-28-’63), 1963. Photograph  11 x 14 inches.   Courtesy Special Collections, MSU Libraries, Michigan State University

Finally, a quartet of engravings by William Hogarth adds some levity to the exhibit, as Hogarth’s wry, satirical works always tend to do.  His characteristically tongue-in-cheek series Humours of an Election, based on an actual 1754 Oxfordshire election, implicates both the Whigs and the Tories in trying to hijack the election through any means necessary.   Hogarth’s humorous approach to political critique is about as far from Goya’s nightmarish visions as one could possibly get, though both artists certainly shared a jaundiced perception of those in political power.

Four Prints of an Election: Plate II, Canvassing for Votes, 1757. Hand-colored engraving, 15 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches. MSU purchase 64.16

Visual Citizenship is a rewarding show, and each vignette of photographs or prints could easily be the starting point for a subsequent exhibition.  It’s certainly relevant and timely, and not just because this happens to be an election year. After all, in the age of social media, the smartphone, and the viral video, images have become the primary way we gather news and process information, which certainly seems to underscore Ariella Azoulay’s original point that image-viewing is a civic act.

MSU Broad – Visual Citizenship, on view at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum through December 26, 2020

 

 

Black Matters @ Flint Institute of Art

Install image, Black Matters, FIA

Chicago-based artist Matthew Owen Wead never intended Shooting Targets to be an ongoing series.  Originally conceived in 2009, this body of work memorialized selected black victims of police violence spanning the years 1969 through 2009.  But the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year sadly keep this body of work perennially relevant.   The thirteen works from Shooting Targets comprise the bulk of the exhibition Black Matters currently on view at the Flint Art Institute, a moving and considered exhibition of life-sized woodcuts that manage to cross into the realm of performance and conceptual art.

Occupying the FIA’s single-room graphics gallery, Black Matters consists of sixteen large woodcuts depicting black victims of police or vigilante violence; each print shows a black figure against a stark, white void, echoing the nearly universal formula for a typical target at a shooting range.  Using himself as the model for most of the prints, Wead imagined the possible expression and posture of each victim in the moment before their death.  Revealingly, it’s not necessarily always fear or panic we see; the five bullets that struck the mentally disabled Ronald Madison were fired into his back, for example, so some of these victims couldn’t react to what they didn’t expect.  Each image is accompanied with didactic text on the wall relaying the story of each victim.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 Breonna Taylor, 2020 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Courtesy of the artist

These works are confrontational in scale and certainly make a strong statement presented together as an ensemble, but their size also references the approximate size of a target at a shooting range.  And we see each individual only from the waist up, also a conscious allusion to a target.  Close inspection of some of these prints reveals actual bullet holes in the print corresponding to the number of times each victim was shot.

Stylistically, these works conscientiously betray the influence of early 20th century expressionistic woodcuts, particularly the visceral and emotionally charged works of Kathe Kollwitz, which Wead acknowledges were a formative influence on his work, along with the dark and visually punchy works of the Baroque painter Caravaggio.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 Johnny Gammage, 2009 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Museum purchase, FIA

All of these works apply expressive linework.  The agitated undulations and swirling light and shadow that appear on the jackets of Michael Pleasance and Khiel Coppin seem to help externalize their states of mind and underscore the drama of the moment, for example.  And the knee on George Floyd’s neck is rendered abstractly as a frighteningly oppressive network of chevron lines which consume half the page.  But there’s also an understated elegance in some of these images, as in the portrait of Ronald Madison, his back rendered with sinuous linework and deft application of light and shadow.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 Ronald Madison, 2009 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Museum purchase, FIA

Both this exhibition’s title and font carry subtle references.  Black Matters, of course, references the Black Lives Matter movement.  But the “B” and “M” in Black Matters  double as a 3 and a 5, wittily referencing the Three-Fifth’s Compromise which emerged from the 1787 Constitutional Convention, a policy that determined that in assessing the populations of each state, slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a person.  The title and the 3/5 fraction together also subtly make the point that addressing systemic racism should always be a priority, not merely in those moments when a particularly sensational video happens to go viral.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 George Floyd, 2020 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Courtesy of the artist

Install image, Black Matters, FIA

This show demonstrates that police brutality has been a problem well before George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbey unwittingly became names with which we are all familiar.  Personally, I found it sadly revealing that almost all of these individuals were people I had never heard of before, suggesting my own relative ignorance of the history and the scope of the problem.  Black Matters is a considered, moving, and pathos-laden exhibition, and it’s also an exhibition that shouldn’t have to happen.

Black Matters, Matthew Owen Wead, Flint Institute of Art