Stephen Towns' colorful portraits at Gallery CA look cheery at first, but the subjects seem to be wistfully contemplating something just out of reach.
Stephen Towns' colorful portraits at Gallery CA look cheery at first, but the subjects seem to be wistfully contemplating something just out of reach. (Courtesy of Gallery CA)

"Co|Patriot: New Works by Stephen Towns"

Through Sept. 22 at Gallery CA


The five colorful portraits of African-Americans (including a smiling child) hanging in the storefront windows of Gallery CA are deceptively cheery. Some of the paintings even feature butterflies hovering around the figures. They look a little like a lot of the murals that "brighten up" the neighborhood.

But then there's the Harriet Jacobs quote up at the top of the wall: "'My Master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each." Suddenly, the adults' expressions take on more nuance; half-smiles look strained, eyes strike a balance of sadness and dignity, and the figures staring at the butterflies seem to be wistfully contemplating something just out of reach.

Inside, the contradictions between first impressions and revelatory details continue. Towns' work is full of unlikely associations; expressive figurative oil and acrylic portraits of contemporary models, Eastern Orthodox iconography, 19th-century African-American literary allusions, historical references, insects, textile motifs, patriotic symbolism, cityscapes, and illustrationlike imagery populate surprisingly cohesive and well-composed canvases. The collusion of styles isn't without its own sense of logic. At times, the gestural quality of Towns' portraits imply movement, but defined outlines and rigid, designlike backgrounds seem to be holding them in place. There's a powerful suggestion of some dynamic potential being constrained by the weight of the histories, cultures, and allusions surrounding the figures.

This feeling of stymied progress carries throughout the strongest pieces in the show. Mashing up icon painting with contemporary figures and settings, Towns questions why "paradise" and "justice" are presented to black America as rewards to be dealt out in the afterlife, not this one. Christianity has ingrained the idea that accepting beatific suffering and having faith are the answers to facing oppression. Towns found this to be a recurring theme in the history of African-American literature while researching the show. In "co|patriot" there are a number of beautifully executed oil and acrylic paintings with metal leaf that reconsider young black men as their own Lords and Saviors, striving to find some semblance of Heaven on Earth. In 'The Prophet of Pennsylvania Avenue' the figure is posed like an icon of Jesus, wearing a white T-shirt and surrounded by a gold-leaf halo in front of a Baltimore streetscape. It conveys an invitation—he seems to be offering help—but also reads like a memorial to the victim of a tragedy. In 'The Shepherd of Sandtown' we see another man carrying a black sheep with a halo in front of a dilapidated block of rowhouses. 'Are You Being Served?' depicts a different young man wearing a Star of David necklace holding a tray of milk and honey. He seems to be offering it to the viewer, but he's surrounded by bees. It references servitude in a supposed "Promised Land"—Zion unfulfilled. They're all gorgeous paintings that channel a mixture of styles without feeling cluttered or contrived. More impressively, they've managed to update the old Marxist adage "Religion is the opiate of the masses" with a totally unique perspective.

Over the past year or two I've become wary of identity-politics-driven exhibitions. All too often, artists who are expected to represent a marginalized group are curatorially and critically ghettoized; artwork by women, queers, and especially people of color is encouraged to do little more than confirm to audiences the demographics of its makers, speak for that group as whole, and collectively reaffirm feelings of victimization. This leads to a lot of bitterness and preaching to the choir at the periphery of cultural production, while the center remains a group of white dudes high-fiving each other over sculptures about pretending to think modernism is stupid.

"Co|Patriot," however, feels timely and smart. The portraits are neither patronizing nor authorless; they strike a balance between the agency of the sitter and the agency of the artist that's refreshing. Seeing this show now, while #iftheygunnedmedown is trending across social media, these paintings feel deeply important. The hashtag is a reference to the way different images are used by mainstream media outlets to portray African-American victims of police shootings—as either stereotypes of hard-partying thugs or college-bound "good kids." The killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (and the countless other unarmed black men who face police violence daily) are the latest reminders that any representations of people of color are necessarily politically charged. In Towns' work we're presented with a new pantheon of saints who have the potential to be canonized for their contributions, but the threat of senseless martyrdom is ever-present. Far beyond just discourse over the politics of representation, Towns is proactively owning his role as a culture producer, creating images that seem necessary.

There's also a group of small mixed-media works on paper depicting black-face minstrel figures. I found myself wishing they weren't in the show and trying to figure out why. Perhaps equating the contemporary struggles of African-Americans with such an iconically historical image of racism runs the risk of assuring us that these problems are "in the past"? Maybe, as is a common reaction to Kara Walker's work, these are rubbing salt in the wound? Could it be that they are less refined, less aesthetically appealing than the oil paintings? Ultimately I had to admit that I disliked them because they conjure a strange, unshakable feeling of guilt. As a white viewer, do I come look at black art in search of some cathartic optimism for a post-racial America? Am I disappointed that there's no sense of absolution here? Perhaps the whole point of including them is to remind viewers that we wish they weren't in the show, to remind us that these images exist.

This thought stuck in my head as I looked at a triptych of paintings hung on the other side of the wall with the butterfly paintings. There's an African-American woman in a military uniform standing in front of a flag. Something about her facial expression conveys a sort of incredulous questioning to the viewer. In the center painting, Michelle Obama wears her best neutral first-lady face and an evening gown. She's also handcuffed. In the last panel, a woman in West African garb stands in front of an American flag and a shiny silverleaf background. She's looking over her shoulder, wearing an "I Voted Today" sticker. Behind her, there's a noose ominously creeping down from the top of the painting. In contrast to the seriousness of the imagery and her gaze, the sticker starts to look cartoony and impotent. Hope, or Change You Can Believe In, begins to feel less believable. It's an apt microcosm of the show and the present state of race relations in America. It's titled 'I Wish It Were That Easy.'

Stephen Towns will give an artist talk, along with artists Amy Sherald, Kyle Hackett, and Espi Frazier, at Gallery CA on Sept. 12.