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African-American Art Stars

Mint Museum showcases masterful works

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By title alone, Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection, promises a show that will tell a few tales. If the title seems to say a lot, so does a compilation of works from the collection: pieces by Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson and others. The works convey a sense of narrative that's sometimes subtle and at other times more obvious, even exaggerated. At all times, these artists respond masterfully to the promise that stories will be told.

Collector Driskell himself, Georgia-born and Harvard-educated, exhibits an example of his own work within the show -- and displays his talents more fully at Noel Gallery on North Tryon Street, where the gallery presents a one-man show of Driskell's own works, among them a wild, brightly colored, "de Kooning-esque" female nude.

One of the artists featured from the Driskell collection at the Mint, William H. Johnson, displays virtuosity and variety. One piece -- stylized and patterned in style -- is the theatrical "Negro Spiritual," in which a cast of swaying, silhouetted figures seems to move in slow-time to some unheard music, across a Stephen Foster stage setting. Johnson's strong figure-field study for "I Baptize Thee" (watercolor on paper) and his color-rich watercolor, "Children Playing London Bridge" (ca. 1942), show other aspects of the artist's oeuvre.

Naturally, the Bearden on view from the Driskell collection, "Morning" (1975), is one of the very best on display. This small collage on paper, typically fresh in mood, incorporates a graceful delineation of basic 2-D design with a smart, sophisticated bow to the emergent pop culture. In "Morning," the innovative collage artist captures the magic of a theatrically tilted urban street scene, which looks conspicuously like a stage set. Like Johnson, Bearden could at times be deliberately theatrical in approach, and this "staging" of the content is one of the elements that promote the sense of storytelling throughout the show.

Few of the African American art stars born at the beginning of the 20th century are still living. An outstanding and influential favorite of many, artist Elizabeth Catlett, is one the few who still are. Her linocut "Harriet" (1975), familiar to many, reveals the artist's mastery of drawing and printmaking. Harriet's bonnet, and the angles of her face, are reminiscent of some of the women's faces captured on film by WPA photographers during the Great Depression. Catlett also produced some high quality sculpture; at least one -- a wooden head -- is on display in the show.

These older artists, men and women, living and dead, are the visual arts' equivalent of blues musicians, and Bearden provides a connection between the disciplines. A polymath of sorts, Bearden could "do" music as well as art, and he moved between these twin muses for years, back and forth, abandoning one for the other.

Another favorite artist, Jacob Lawrence, makes a more symbolic connection with music. His three fine works on display include a smooth, silkscreen rendition that reads like jazz on paper; Lawrence, who also works in egg tempera, conveys a narrative about people with jazzy riffs and licks in "Masonic" from 1955.

In all, the Mint shows more than 100 paintings by leading African American artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Others include Edward Banister, Robert Duncanson, Henry O. Tanner, Augustus Savage and Richard Barthe, whose lovely bronze and concrete sculpture, "Head of Dancer (Harold Kreutzberg)" (1930s), clearly reveals the influence of art from Africa.

Besides painting and sculpture, several fine photographs, almost quaint in their detailed record of social and aesthetic values, reveal a reality shift. This depicted world is very different from ours today.

More contemporary photographs are a gorgeous black-and-white portrait of opera singer Paul Robeson by Roy Decarava and a photo of Wynton Marsalis by Frank Stewart.

Re-Emergence might be a better heading for a section of the show called Emergence. It was the ancestors of these artists whose culture was consumed by the omnivorous North American culture in an earlier century. Rather than emerging from Africa and its arts, these American artists are of African descent, rather than birth. These works go a long way toward reclaiming their native origins.

In the room next door at the Mint, Charlotte's Own -- Romare Bearden is also on view, with Charlotte-born Bearden hailed, justly, as one of America's premiere artists. The majority of works displayed in this show are his signature collages, which continue to influence artists worldwide by their sheer design quality, color, vitality and social commentary. (Note: Other fine pieces by Bearden are currently on view at the Jerald Melberg Gallery in Morrocroft at SouthPark.)

An additional exhibition, Celebrating the Legacy of Romare Bearden, is a kind of icing on the cake. This two-part exhibition, organized by the Mint Museum, opened this past weekend and runs through various dates at the beginning of 2003. You can see Celebrating, which "was conceived expressly for Carolina artists to respond to and expand Bearden's legacy" and to "express the impact of Bearden on their own artwork," in the Dickson Gallery at the Mint and at Spirit Square. Congrats go to Susan Perry at the Mint for making this innovative opportunity possible.

Mint staffer Phil Busher explains the importance of Charlotte to the man who's considered the city's greatest artist. "Romare Bearden was born on South Graham Street in Charlotte's Third Ward in 1912. His family moved to Pittsburgh when he was eight and again to Harlem in his early teens. While the greatest influence on Bearden's art was growing up in Harlem's exhilarating and eclectic circle of intellectuals, artists and musicians, Bearden's Charlotte ties were maintained with summer visits up to the death of his great-grandmother in 1925."

Charlotte's claim of Romare Bearden as a native son is validated in two of the artist's collage series, Mecklenburg County and Of the Blues.

Most critics agree that Bearden's childhood memories of family life, and the influence of blues and gospel music from the segregated South, provided fertile ground that the artist continually explored in his work.

Charles L. Mo, Mint Vice President of Collections and Exhibitions, states that these exhibitions "provide a rich visual opportunity to announce the museum's desire to build a repository of Romare Bearden art." This is an excellent ambition, and one especially relevant to our city. It's nice to build something up in the arts in Charlotte, as opposed to tearing art down as CPCC so disgracefully did recently.

The exhibit Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection, is on display at the Mint through Sunday, October 27. The two-part Celebrating the Legacy of Romare Bearden exhibition runs through February 23 in the Dickson Gallery of the Mint Museum, and through January 5 in Spirit Square's Knight Gallery.

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