The eyes speak volumes. They belong to a strikingly beautiful, unsmiling woman dressed in aristocratic Elizabethan garb, painted against a deep blue sky.
She casts a penetrating gaze at the viewer that does not let go easily, even far across the elegant, high-ceilinged front room of Galerie Myrtis. The more you look, the more those eyes impart about past, present and perception.
Welcome to "The Image of the Black: Reimagined and Redefined."
The title of this compelling exhibit makes reference to "The Image of the Black in Western Art," a landmark publication of Harvard University Press. "That was mostly white artists creating images of black people," says gallery founder Myrtis Bedolla. "In this show, black artists are reimagining or redefining the black experience."
"The Persistence of History" — the title of that acrylic-on-canvas portrait of the Elizabethan-style woman with the deep eyes — is a case in point. The painter, S. Ross Browne, has written of his intention to challenge "conventionally assigned racial archetypes." He does so brilliantly in this piece.
The first surprise is seeing a person of color in a guise so firmly associated with white imperial culture of ages past. Another surprise comes from what the woman holds in her elegant hands — an hourglass. Though incongruously held on its side, the sand — red-blood sand — continues to flow through the center, individual grains bouncing upon impact.
Browne's "The Reconciliation" manages to evoke Eve and a breast-plated Joan of Arc. This warrior contemplates an apple in her right hand, while the hand of an unseen figure grabs at her left and a fire rises ominously in the distance. The bold painting exemplifies what gallery director Aden Weisel describes as the artist's interest in "metaphor, religion, science fiction and mythology."
In another large oil work, "The Calm," three contemplative women dressed in white are clearly contemporary, except for the sword and pieces of medieval armor also in the scene. The Richmond-based Browne "loves elevating the black woman," Bedolla says. "He sees them as an empowering force."
The exhibit, with prices ranging from $800 to $12,500, provides equally intriguing experiences on each wall of the gallery, which opened in 2008 in a handsome late-19th century townhouse on Charles Street, a few blocks above North Avenue.
Nina Buxenbaum, a New York-born and -based graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, is represented by oil-on-linen pieces using the dreadful "Topsy-Turvy doll" — a white girl concealing a black girl underneath Southern belle clothes — as a symbol "to explore my personal expression of self as a biracial woman and also play with the metamorphosis of identity." These richly textured paintings of women emerging from, or entangled in, satiny dresses exert a haunting lyricism.
"All American," a triptych of ink jet prints by Maryland-born Larry Cook previously seen in the exhibit of finalists for the Sondheim Artscape Prize in 2013 at the Walters Art Museum, is a confrontational spin on the red, white and blue — a central image of a saluting Klansman framed by African American youths, one representing the Bloods gang, the other the Crips.
Oregon-based Arvie Smith, a MICA alum who taught at the school, plunges into racial issues with an unblinking touch. In vivid tones, his images draw from old advertisements (a smoking tobacco brand incorporating the "N" word, for example) and the world of minstrel shows to create potent, multi-layered statements.
Other exhibit highlights: Texas-based Delita Martin's quietly vibrant portraits, with pieces of fabric stitched onto the prints; an almost sculptural mixed-media portrait by T. Eliott Mansa that makes a subtle socio-economic statement; and several portraits by self-taught Army vet Ronald Jackson, who reveals a subtle, poetic touch.
"The Image of the Black" easily fulfills Bedolla's mission. "I want to bring art to the people that is relevant," she says, "something that speaks to you, or maybe provokes you."