Artist confronts opposition to same-sex marriage

"Have Forgotten" by Jeffrey Kent is part of the exhibit "Preach! New Works by Jeffrey Kent."
"Have Forgotten" by Jeffrey Kent is part of the exhibit "Preach! New Works by Jeffrey Kent." (Handout image)

It is not unusual to see art that tackles social and political issues, but there's still something startling about Jeffrey Kent's solo show "Preach!" at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park.

The Baltimore artist zeros in on opposition by some African-Americans, especially in churches, to same-sex marriage. Kent employs provocative imagery, including minstrel figures in blackface, and an evocative substance: cotton.

The impetus for the recently completed project goes back to 2008.

That election year included a contentious referendum in California — Proposition 8, which sought to overturn the state Supreme Court's validation of same-sex marriage. The proposition passed.

"I was watching MSNBC a lot back then," Kent, 49, said, "and I heard Rachel Maddow say that 7 of 10 African-Americans in California voted for Prop 8, voted to deny rights to people. That triggered sketches in my mind. I needed to make art about the hypocrisy."

The result is a potent show curated by the Exhibition Development Seminar at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where Kent earned a degree in 2010.

His series of mixed-media paintings are filled with references to the African-American past — slavery, the Tuskegee Airmen from World War II, civil rights marches. Kent, who identifies as straight, blends such references into scenes depicting demonstrations in favor of Prop 8.

A recurring figure is a cartoonish and brightly dressed male who conjures up a minstrel and/or a minister; a blindfold and halo give extra twists to the image. In "Don't Call Us Nigras No More," such a figure preaches a sermon; a talk bubble screams "Deny Equality Rights" (the writing is in reverse, so the viewer has to take more time deciphering it).

The black outline of a woman, a vintage archetype of a cotton field worker, is another recurring motif. In "Do You Remember When We Fell in Love?" the woman is surrounded by cotton plants, with real tufts of cotton poking out, and the bundle balanced on her head contains a word spelling, in reverse, "dementia."

It's the artist's unapologetically blunt way of confronting those who, in his view, fail to see connective threads in struggles for equality.

"The first image that came to me when I started all of this was slaves," Kent said. "I needed cotton to be on the paintings. I started to go into a Rite Aid to get some, but I felt that specificity is more important than materiality. I needed to get real cotton that slaves had touched."

Kent hunted for mid-19th century furniture that had never been reupholstered, figuring that the cotton inside would most likely have come from the South, where, again most likely, it would have been harvested by slaves.

"I wanted to remind people, not just the 7 out of 10 African-Americans who voted for Proposition 8, that not all humans always had the same rights in America," Kent said.

The artist mingles issues of race and sexual orientation in sculpture, too.

"Hurdle" consists of a broom suspended floating horizontally above two piles of books. The "jumping the broom" tradition in slavery days — symbolizing the union of a man and woman when legal marriage was not an option — evokes difficulties another set of Americans faces now in many states.

(The recent legalization of same-sex marriage here and elsewhere did not change Kent's determination to complete his project.)

Symbol upon symbol piles up in "Justice, Peace and Genuine Respect for All People." This sculpture has two chairs — one holding a Bible with a gavel on top — balanced on piles of books, several on African-American subjects. Those books rest on a rug with copies of old Playboy and Playgirl magazines peeking out underneath.

The artist likens himself to stand-up comedians.

"Most of the successful ones make commentaries about contemporary society," he said. "I explore humor, satire and irony to address hypocrisy."


If you go

"Preach!" runs through March 31 in the Herbert Bearman Art Gallery at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum, 1417 Thames St. Donation. Call 410-685-0295 or go to preachjeffreykent.com.