THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Evan Carter
“The Time is Now!,” a new exhibit at the Smart Museum of Art, invites viewers to take a deep dive into the history of modern art that unfolded locally on Chicago’s South Side. The museum sits on the University of Chicago campus and, under the new direction of Alison Gass, seems to have become more conscious of its role in the Hyde Park community. “The Time is Now!” is a milestone exhibition that extends the cultural reach of this museum and the community it inhabits.
Without getting too deeply mired in institutionalized white guilt, it is worth noting that the University of Chicago has played a significant role in stifling the cultural growth of this community (and still does in some ways) in spite of its efforts to make up for it. So, it is understandable that those aware of, and who feel affected by, this history may have bittersweet emotions about this exhibition.
But the work should be elevated and celebrated, and the power of this project is far greater than any apology. Curator Rebecca Zorach is a historian of activist art from the 1960s and ‘70s (as well as 15th – 17th century European art) and has written on Chicago-based art projects and movements such as the Art & Soul art center and the AfriCOBRA collective. The aesthetic breadth of “The Time is Now!” is framed through this historical lens.
Two large galleries of the Smart are divided into roughly five rooms that address various topics relevant to the South Side’s artistic and cultural history. “Crisis in America,” “Gender and Feminism,” “The Street,” and “Black Publishing” are just a few of the many paths this exhibition invites viewers to take. It begins with examples of work that feel plucked from the art historical narrative of the mid-twentieth century. Upon entering, we are greeted with ventures into social realism, abstraction, and surrealism. There are even a few pre-1960 pieces, such as Marion Perkins’ Standing Figure dated from the late 1940s or a 1946 print by Elizabeth Catlett from a series titled “The Black Woman.”
The artists of this time were thoughtfully engaged in artistic modes of expression and material exploration. Wadsworth Jarrell’s Neon Row stands out as a masterful encapsulation of the vibrant nightlife on 63rd Street in 1958. This atmospheric painting sits on the wall above a 1975 print by José Williams depicting the same street 17 years later, after the elevated train tracks were constructed. The juxtaposition of these two works speaks to the dramatic changes in the South Side during this time period.
Jarrell’s free yet meticulous hand generates an image imbued with the richness and complexity of what he saw. Williams’ print is stark and mechanically tight in its photographic rendering and limited tri-tone palette. The relationship between these two works embodies a sense of loss, transition, and cold acceptance.
The internal psychology of this bleak narrative is further explored with adjacent works like Nathan Wright’s 1971 oil painting, Bound. Wright deployed surrealist methods and aesthetics to depict a male black figure literally tied down by the overwhelming constraints of history, religion, politics, and modern-day consumerism. The symbols are heavy and abundant, but the scene is set in a spatial void, further emphasizing senses of isolation and futility.
Nathan Wright, Bound, 1971.
Art historical tropes are used more overtly in Norman Parish Jr.’s Gyrations of American Gothic, which depicts the iconic Grant Wood figures as younger and black. Curiously, the male figure foregrounds the female figure. She seems to be eyeing her supposed husband somewhat blankly. Perhaps it is suspicion, doubt, or maybe admiration. Parish is a loose painter, but the other black figures wear clearer expressions of fear, paranoia, and anger. An American flag divides them from a group of white figures that stand by blankly with little emotion other than contentment, implicating their privilege, apathy and complicity in an oppressively racist system.
Norman Parish Jr., Gyrations of American Gothic, 1969.
The role of women and the feminist movement during this time begins to make its appearance in this exhibition with works by Carolyn Lawrence, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Christina Ramberg, and Suellen Rocca, to name a few. Jones-Hogu’s contributions include Black Men We Need You, a 1971 screen print depicting a mother and two children with the words of the title bursting with colorful urgency in the background and foreground. Silhouetted faces in profile make up significant portions of the composition, as does more text in the lower right corner that reads ‘Black Men, preserve our race. Leave white bitches alone.’
This loaded and urgent call to action speaks to the skepticism of white feminists held by black women during this time. Though this division is mentioned in the wall text, it is less apparent in the inclusion of Chicago Imagists Suellen Rocca and Christina Ramberg, whose paintings grapple with how the female form functions in mass consumer culture and sexually repressive social regimes. Works like Jones-Hogu’s suggest these issues were not as pressing to black women as the issues of solidifying a familial structure and being heard in their community.
Though some of the aforementioned work posits the black male as a central figure, the works of the AfriCOBRA movement express a greater sense of unity in their mission to portray the black community in a way that was altogether more honest, positive, unified and progressing toward a brighter future. Made up of men and women, this movement continued to utilize the print methods a number of these artists were already exploring, and a reoccurring use of text evocative of the psychedelic designs of the countercultural appeals to utopian ideals.
The AfriCOBRA artists did not shy away from addressing oppression and the struggle for equality. One fascinating artifact is embedded in the surface of a screen print by Gerald Williams titled Wake Up. A page taken from the John A. Williams novel The Man Who Cried I Am describes the King Alfred Plan. Though this excerpt is a work of fiction, it was circulated as not only a kind of subversive marketing strategy but as fictive expression of something very real: the practical failures of the civil rights movement in the face of soaring political rhetoric.*
While John A. Williams’ novel gets a mention in the description of Gerald Williams’s print, it has far greater resonance with this work than one might guess. When the fictional King Alfred Plan was circulated amongst activists in the late 1960s, the extent to which it was real was debated. One young civil rights activist and member of the Black Panther Party, Clive DePatten, testified to the effects of the King Alfred Plan before the House Committee on Internal Security. After he spoke, a congressman informed him the plan had already been investigated by the FBI and proved to be fictional. But the young activist, and others who testified in years to follow, argued that the King Alfred Plan, in spite of its fictional nature, was representative of the institutional and systemic racism being perpetrated in America years after civil rights for all American had supposedly been achieved. As is often the case, art can elucidate a greater truth.
Activism and organizing, in conjunction with creative expression, is what generated such a potent collection of movements and ideas during this period on Chicago’s South Side. The show goes on to present not only more artworks but an archive of documentarian photographs by Bertrand “Bert” D. Phillips and others as well as histories and artifacts of the South Side’s publishing and public art institutions.
There is far greater ground to cover here, and the far greater course would be to go and experience it yourself. A lot of history is on display that has been unavailable to a larger public for nearly a half century. This exhibition seeks to change that. It is about time.
* Emre, Merve. “How a fictional racist plot made the headlines and revealed an American truth,” The New Yorker, December 31, 2017. Accessed 10/18/2018. https://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/how-a-fictional-racist-plot-made-the-headlines-and-revealed-an-american-truth
Evan Carter is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about Documenta 14 in a prior issue of the Examiner.
Marion Perkins, Standing Figure 1940’s.
Wadsworth Jarrell, Neon Row, 1958.
Elliot Hunter, Grasshopper.
Frederick D. Jones, The Lady and The Bird, Early 1960’s.
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