Baltimore’s Galerie Myrtis can be counted on to showcase art that engages the intellect and emotions as deeply as the eye. That’s doubly true of its latest exhibit, “Black Man in a Black World.”
The majority of the public is used to seeing the image of the black male as determined and disseminated by the media or politicians or advertisers, not by black male artists. Five of them are included here, each with something to say about identity and self-worth, about endurance and pride.
Among the 19 pieces on view and for sale (prices range from $850 to $5,500), Wesley Clark's “Factualism” effectively sums up the exhibit, delivering its message with disarming directness.
Painted on wood and resembling a Scrabble board, the interconnecting words spell out such nouns as “father,” “brother,” “builders,” “scientist,” “stanchion”; such adjectives as “resourceful,” “passionate,” “desired.” Most tellingly of all, perhaps, is the section on the upper left, where the words “black” and “history” intersect with “human.”
“It’s Wesley Clark’s way of defining the black male experience with words that are very positive and affirming,” says the gallery’s owner and the exhibit’s curator, Myrtis Bedolla.
Something similarly affirming leaps from a series of dynamic monotypes by Arvie Smith, a former faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Art. These works aim, in the artist’s words, “to flip the role of the Black Man from the degradation of subservience to the triumphant role of hero using images traditionally assigned to white males.”
This is most literal in “Sampson Brings Down the House,” which, by substituting a man of color for the Israelite whose strength toppled a Philistine temple, suggests a more contemporary struggle to topple injustice.
In Smith’s bracing oil painting “Tight Rope” — in the foreground, a portrait of a pensive black man in a suit and tie; in the distance, clownish figures stepping onto a rope — Bedolla sees “the balancing act a black man has to have, where if you step too far to the right or the left, you fall off.”
In Larry Cook’s photographic portraits, “Face Off I” and “Face Off II,” the issue is not about black men relating to a white world, but trying to relate to their own.
Cook, a Washington-based Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist, shows two males facing eye to eye. Their contrasting attire and hair suggest different, possibly conflicting ways and beliefs. But even as the subjects keep their distance, the shadows they cast come together.
(This week, Cook won the $10,000 Best of Show honor in the Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards. His work and that of the finalists will be displayed through Sept. 30 at Gallery B, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda.)
Among other provocative items in the Galerie Myrtis exhibit is “The God Seed,” by the Maryland-born and -based Clark. Painted in black on a wood surface is an image of the human heart; springing out from it are strands of gold-colored barbed wire, an element loaded with resonance.
“Crackers and the Eucharist,” a large, vibrant painting by Haitian-American, Rhode Island-based Eric Telfort, depicts a man practicing to receive communion, using a Ritz cracker as a substitute. The image is at once reverent and irreverent.
While most works on display strike a positive note, three paintings by Johnnie Lee Gray, a Vietnam veteran and outsider artist who died in 2000, confront a dispiriting aspect of the country’s history.
Born in South Carolina in 1941, the self-taught Gray created an indelible chronicle in a triptych titled “The Revolution,” each scene showing the same corner of a Southern town at different points in history.
The first conjures up an intersection — the streets are named for Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee — during the Jim Crow era. A black child looks into the window of an ice cream store with a “whites only” sign in the window. In the second painting, that window is smashed as police and civil rights marchers clash.
In the third piece, the street signs read “MLK Blvd. and Nelson Mandela Ave.,” but it has become a neighborhood of vice and need. And Gray leaves no doubt who is still pulling all the economic strings, only now from a distant skyscraper.
Rich in small details (note the titles on the marquee of a movie house), symbolism and emotive force, the paintings give extra weight to an absorbing exhibit.
If you go
“Black Man in a Black World” runs through Nov. 18 at Galerie Myrtis, 2224 N. Charles St. Hours are 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and by appointment. Artists’ talk 4 p.m. Oct. 14. Film screenings at 2 p.m. Oct. 8 (“Nothing But a Man”) and Nov. 18 (“The Spook Who Sat by the Door”). Free. Call 410-235-3711, or go to galeriemyrtis.net.