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Overlooked uncovered

African-American art arrives at Gallery of Contemporary Art

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Umbrella by Emilio Cruz
  • Umbrella by Emilio Cruz

A few examples of some of the greatest 20th-century African-American art will be on display at the Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs beginning this Friday.

This world-class exhibition, titled Living with Art: Modern and Contemporary African American Art from the Collection of Alitash Kebede, may be one of the last of its kind for some time at the struggling GCA, said gallery director Gerry Riggs.

"This may be the last big national show I can afford for awhile as the granting agencies and grants have all but dried up," Riggs said.

Until the funding situation improves, he'll be forced to limit the scope of the gallery's shows, focusing primarily on regional art instead of the mix of regional, national and international shows the gallery normally hosts.

While the outlook for high-caliber shows of national and international import appears grim, local artists, students, teachers and aficionados now have an opportunity to educate themselves about a chapter of American art history that has, until recently, been largely overlooked.

Culled from the private collection of Alitash Kebede -- an Ethiopian expatriate who came to the United States with her family after the death of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1975 and began avidly collecting African-American art -- the show presents 74 works by 40 20th-century artists who are only now becoming household names.

Many of the artists in the show -- including Charles White, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden -- were featured in an article in Art News magazine this past September titled "The Rise of African American Art."

Writer Eileen Kinsella points out that the recent rise in prices of African-American art at auction houses indicates a never-before-seen degree of collectibility and acceptance of African-American art, but some wonder why these works must necessarily be labeled "African-American."

"But even as demand and prices for the work of major artists soar," writes Kinsella, "curators and dealers are trying to strike a balance between highlighting the cultural significance and achievements of black artists and integrating their work into the broader category of American art."

Undoubtedly, everyone who sees the show will, at some point, ask themselves: What, exactly, ties these artists together other than the fact that they are African-American? How does one categorize works as diverse as Richard Mayhew's gorgeous and ethereal landscape "Meadow"; Herbert Gentry's thoroughly modern, kinetic lines; Palmer Hayden's folksy Harlem Renaissance painting "Steps of Baltimore;" and the entirely abstract work of Sam Gilliam?

Such aesthetic dissonance may, ultimately, prove to be useful as art historians begin to reassess the work of these nearly forgotten artists -- proving to audiences and collectors that race-based rubrics are helpful only when trying to uncover works of art that have been overlooked because of the color of the artists' skin. Other than the fact that many of the paintings, drawings and prints take blacks as their subject matter, the show might otherwise read like a secret history of 20th-century art.

Man with Nkrumah Haircut by Allison Saar
  • Man with Nkrumah Haircut by Allison Saar

Bearden, Lawrence and White, for example, all masterfully typify Works Progress Administration-era social realism and expressionism.

As a young man in the 1930s, Bearden studied with heavy hitters like the German expressionist George Grosz and modernists Joan Mir and Henri Matisse, and traces of the politics and aesthetics of all these artists can be found in the flattened, almost cubist look of his civil-rights era narratives.

Lawrence's serigraphs and gouache paintings -- collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City -- are equally stunning as histories, compositions and palettes. "Confrontation at the Bridge" depicts an eerily ambiguous scenario of a group of blacks trying to cross a bridge guarded by a Cerberus-like hellhound.

One of the real treats of the exhibition is the work of Emilio Cruz. "Umbrella" illustrates a black man's head atop a batlike umbrella while a disembodied hand holds the hooked handle. The vision, while concisely surreal, is one of comfort, protection and brooding rage all at once. One of Cruz's monumental "Tree of Life" pastel drawings is also on display along with a portrait of Alitash Kebede.

Also spectacular are the contemporary portraits of Africans on old wallpaper in ornate plastic frames by Allison Saar (whose mother and sister are also represented in the show). While self-consciously referencing African folk art, the portraits such as "Young Woman from Mali" and "Man with 'Nkrumah' Haircut" have a mythic timelessness and tenderness that should undoubtedly earn her recognition alongside more celebrated contemporary African-American artists like Kara Walker.

-- Noel Black

capsule

Living with Art: Modern and Contemporary African American Art from the Collection of Alitash Kebede

Gallery of Contemporary Art at UCCS 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway

Opening reception: Friday, Oct. 24 from 5 to 7:30 p.m.

Gallery is open Monday Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The show runs through Dec. 19

Call 262-3567

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