Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Breaking the Taboos of Blackface Minstrelsy

When I first visited artist Mark Steven Greenfield's studio a few years ago I felt as if I'd been dropped into a mine field loaded with taboo, political correctness, and liberal guilt. I found myself face-to-face with large sepia-toned prints of white actors in . . . blackface! These repugnant relics freaked me out -- I honestly didn't know how to react. There were eye charts superimposed on each photograph, not the usual mix of letters for checking vision, but some sort of text. I slowly sounded them out: S-O-T-E-L-L-M-E-W-H-O-S-T-H-E-N-I-G-G-E-R-N-O-W-?; W-H-A-T-C-H-O-O-L-O-O-K-I-N-A-T-M-U-T-H-A-F-U-C-K-A-H-? The messages left me reeling. I suppressed a strong urge to exclaim "I'm not lookin' at nuthin'" and run for the door!

I didn't run, but after the initial jolt, I had to examine my reaction. How had this artwork had such a disorienting affect on me and evoked so many emotions -- shock, guilt, fascination, repulsion, shame, fear, and confusion? What did I really know about blackface minstrelsy? The subject has become "disappeared" to the point that most of us know little about it aside from its racist implications.

Mark Steven Greenfield, from blackatcha series, Nightmare, 2001, Iris print, 38" x 24"
Mark maintained his cool and maybe even took a little pleasure in my discomfort. He had been through this many times, not just with white folks like me, but also with blacks, including angry family members. I knew I wanted to show this provocative work at my gallery, but I needed to understand my reaction to it and be able to intelligently discuss the work with others. Mark suggested I read John Strausbaugh's Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture.

First published in 2006, Strausbaugh's book is a taboo-busting, eye-opening look at race relations and popular American culture. Strausbaugh takes us on a fascinating ride through the history of blackface and its pervasive influence -- from the first Africans brought to Portugal in 1441 as exotic curiosities, to slavery, white actors blacking up for Shakespeare's Othello, the wildly popular minstrel shows of the 19th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jim Crow, Vaudeville, Rock, Hip-Hop, Blaxploitation films, Negrobilia, Gangsta'Lit, Ebonics and more.

In 1832, a white ghetto boy from New York, T.D. Rice, began performing his song Jump Jim Crow, dressed like slave with black grease paint and absurdly wide red lips, while shuffling across the stage in the character of a Southern Negro. He became the first blackface superstar, and for the next half century minstrelsy would be the dominant form of American entertainment.

"However shameful we find it, blackface has played a large and integral role in the formation of American popular culture. It existed before the heyday of the minstrel show, and has persisted long after the minstrels faded away . . . Although it was certainly racist, it was sometimes something other than that, a reflection of the complex of neuroses and pathologies that mark relations between Whites And Black in America -- a complicated web of love and hate, fear and guilt, attraction and repulsion, mockery and mimicry."

Mark Steven Greenfield, from Doo-Dahz series, Portrait of Rosetta Duncan, 2010, pen & ink on Duralar, 36" X 24", currently on view at Offramp Gallery through June 26, 2011
According to Strausbaugh: "Simply condemning it all as an entertainment that pandered to White racism does not begin to account for its complexities, its confusion, its neuroses. It simultaneously laughed at and wept for Southern Blacks. In the years leading up to the Civil War, minstrel songs proposed both pro-and antislavery positions. After the war, minstrel performers were as likely to be actual Blacks as blackfaced Whites."

With the wave of immigrants pouring into American at the turn of the 20th century, New York City became the famous "melting pot." Many ethnic groups had to learn to live side by side and accept each other's differences. Much of this was accomplished through humor, reflected on the Vaudeville stage. Black actors in blackface shared the stage with other broadly played ethnic stereotypes. Most of the light-skinned ethnic groups managed to blend in with white America, but the stereotypes persisted for Blacks:

". . . it cannot be doubted that the images of Blackness that were most familiar to many White Americans into the twentieth century were not Blackness at all, but some version of blackface. Blackness as interpreted and re-created by White people, often in mockery, but sometimes in genuine and sincere imitation."

From Black Like You: "The cakewalk is one of those intriguing confluences of Black and White American cultures. Blacks on the plantation had developed it as a satire of their White masters. Their backs stiffly arched, their butts held tight, they strutted, bowed, and twirled their canes in a blatant parody of the way tight-assed, stiff-necked White folks moved. White folks loved to see Black dancers execute a fine cakewalk, and demanded to be taught how to do it, apparently unaware that they were being mocked."

Everyone should read this book. It is an invaluable guide through the mine field I encountered on first viewing Mark Steven Greenfield's work. A broader understanding of blackface makes me squirm a little less, gives me new insight into race relations and popular culture in America and lets me look beyond the indignities blackface engendered without forgetting them.

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Currently on view at Offramp Gallery

Mark Steven Greenfield: Doo-Dahz
May 15 - June 26, 2011

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thomas Hart Benton: An American Painter

I recently read an article about a 1951 Thomas Hart Benton painting that sold for nearly $1.9 million at a Southeby's auction. The painting, Flood Disaster, was created to highlight the devastating flooding of the Kansas and Missouri rivers in July 1951 that killed 17 people and displaced more than half a million residents. The painting seems timely in light of the current flooding of the Mississippi River. It also seems to eerily foreshadow the destruction we're seeing from Sunday's tornado in Joplin, Missouri -- the town where a young Thomas Hart Benton worked as a cartoonist for the local newspaper.

Ken Burns' America: Thomas Hart Benton paints a portrait of a hard-working, hard-drinking man full of contradictions. Born into a political family, he was named after his famous great-uncle, U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, champion of Manifest Destiny. Benton's father was a U.S. Congressman who wanted his son to follow in the family footsteps to become a lawyer and a politician. But from an early age Benton wanted to be an artist and later said of his father: "that I should even think of becoming an artist gave him a sense of outrage. It would never do for a Benton to descend so low." 

Thomas Hart Benton, Flood Disaster, 1951, Courtesy Southeby's
Benton left home at 17 and got a job as a cartoonist for the Joplin American newspaper, in Joplin, Missouri. Convinced he could make a living as an artist, he demanded to go to art school. Instead, his father sent him off to military school, determined to drive the art out of him. When his son proved a failure at military school, the elder Benton relented and sent him to the Chicago Art Institute. From there Benton went on to study in Paris and ultimately landed in New York where he tried his hand at all the artistic "isms" of the early 20th century.

Drawn to the compositional principles of the Renaissance masters, Benton's breakthrough came with his discovery of Tintoretto's method of sculpting wax figures and lighting them to use as models for his paintings. For the next 55 years, Benton sculpted clay figures for every painting he painted. He abandoned any theoretical constructs of painting and embarked on a three dimensional story-telling that he believed was purely American in character.

He began to roam the rural areas of America making drawings of the people he encountered. He churned out paintings and murals at a breathtaking rate. He enjoyed success but was not without his critics who derided him as a "regionalist," a label that he proudly adopted and that has stuck to him to this day.

Fed up with the New York art world, which he saw as "morbidly narrow, highly critical of innovation and under the domination of homosexuals," at the age of 45 Benton moved back to Missouri to become the head of painting at the Kansas City Art Institute. He had dreams of making Kansas City the new Athens of America, dreams for the heartland that were never realized.

(There was no trailer available for the Ken Burns film.)

Benton fell out of favor after World War II and continued his battle against New York and the dominance of Abstract Expressionism. How ironic that a former student, Jackson Pollock, should become the most famous Abstract Expressionist. Pollock claimed he had learned nothing from his old teacher, saying that "Benton had come face to face with Michelangelo and lost."

And yet Pollock craved the approval of his teacher. Benton's sister, Mildred Small, recalls: "He [Pollock] used to call Tom, in the middle of the night, always was, asking, well, really begging for Tom's approval. He felt attached to him always, I think. And Tom never gave it. He said 'Jack it's all right, whatever you want to do -- successful, you're successful, don't bother yourself about it, it's all right.'"

Benton remained in Kansas City until his death at the age of 85. On a January evening in 1975, he finished his dinner and went out to his studio to sign a mural he had just completed. He was found on the floor in front of the lower right hand corner of the unsigned mural. His grief-stricken wife of 53 years, Rita, died 10 weeks later.

Ken Burns' documentary, first broadcast in 1988, masterfully tells the story of Benton's high-powered life, artfully weaving together interviews with art critics, family and friends, original footage of Benton and reproductions of his work. You hear from both fans and foes of his work and legacy. Whether you're familiar with Benton's work or not, the film is a highly entertaining and informative look at a truly American artist.

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Currently on view at Offramp Gallery

Mark Steven Greenfield: Doo-Dahz
May 15 - June 26, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In My Opinion: The Jury is Out on Juried Exhibitions

"In all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane." -- Oscar Wilde

Have you ever walked through a juried art exhibition and wondered what the jurors were smoking when they awarded the prizes? Let me phrase that another way: Have you ever walked through a juried art exhibition and not wondered what the jurors were smoking when they awarded the prizes? How could that piece of crap win first prize and this other wonderful gem go totally unnoticed? Surely the jurors were pushing their own evil money-making agendas, awarding prizes to artists whose work they personally own to raise the value of their misguided investments.

I recently participated on a jury for the first time and will try to shed some light on the process. The exhibition was a small fund-raiser with artists paying a modest fee to enter their work in the competition. The jurors weren't told the names of the artists unless they had signed their piece on the front, in which case it was obvious. (Note to artists -- consider your reputation before signing your piece for a juried show -- anonymity could work for you or against you!)

My fellow jurors included another art dealer and a well-known art writer. There were about 60 pieces in the show: paintings, drawings, photography, assemblages, and sculpture. The work ranged from amateurish to accomplished, and the subject matter from crying Jesuses to artichokes. Our job was to award first, second and third cash prizes. Where to begin?

We decided to view the show separately and jot down a list of pieces that we liked, marking what we thought were the top five. Once we had made our lists we settled down to discuss our choices. I mentioned up front that my gallery represented two of the artists in the show and recused myself from voting for them (even though they were, of course, my favorites). I didn't mention their names or which pieces they were.

I was asked to go first -- what piece did I think should win first place? As soon as I mentioned my choice, the other two jurors got quizzical looks on their faces and jumped up to look at the piece again. They both came back shaking their heads. My ego was slightly bruised, but I kept my composure and we moved on.

Then the writer revealed his first-place pick and the same thing happened -- the other juror and I got weird looks on our faces, jumped up to look at the piece again, and came back shaking our heads. And then, unbelievably, it happened a third time with the last juror's pick. There was no consensus. So we crossed all three of those pieces off our lists and not one of our individual picks won a prize!

We then tried another approach that worked much better. Was there anything that appeared on each of our top five lists? There was one piece that did, and we decided to award first place to that artist. It was the only piece that all three of us agreed on. After a reasonable amount of time deliberating, the second and third place prizes were each decided by two jurors liking the piece and the third not objecting. And that was that.

The whole process took about an hour and was relaxed and congenial. I didn't pick up on any hidden agendas or aggressive behavior. Quite the contrary, I felt we were all very open about the kinds of work we liked and didn't like -- and no one seemed to take any of it personally. What did I think about the results? Not the three I would have picked, but they all had a certain level of integrity that I was fine with.

So the problem, as I see it, is not juror bias -- everyone has a point of view and it's impossible to put it aside. The challenge of a jury is in building consensus, or rather, resolving many points of view. Wikipedia defines consensus decision-making as a "process that seeks not only the agreement of most participants but also the resolution or mitigation of minority objections."

Or as Margaret Thatcher once put it: ". . . consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies . . . it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects."

So the next time you find yourself wondering what the jurors were smoking when they awarded those prizes, the answer might be consensus. Is consensus a bad thing when it comes to art? Or is it a healthy democratizing counterpoint to the commercial gallery system, where one person's vision rules supreme? Let me know what you think.

Currently on view at Offramp Gallery

Mark Steven Greenfield: Doo-Dahz
May 15 - June 26, 2011

Mark Steven Greenfield: Doo-Dahz, Opening Reception, Offramp Gallery, Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Brunelleschi's Dome

It was considered the greatest architectural puzzle of its age. Many said it couldn’t be done. Nothing even close to its size had been built since antiquity. It would have a diameter of 143 feet and would exceed the span of the Pantheon in Rome which had reigned as the world’s largest dome for over 1000 years. The dome for Santa Maria del Fiore, the new cathedral in Florence, would not only be the widest dome ever built, it would also be the highest.

But who could build it? And how?

On August 19, 1418 the Opera del Duomo in Florence announced a competition:

“Whoever desires to make any model or design for the vaulting of the main Dome of the Cathedral under construction by the Opera del Duomo – for armature, scaffold or other thing, or any lifting device pertaining to the construction and perfection of said cupola or vault – shall do so before the end of the month of September. If the model be used he shall be entitled to a payment of 200 gold Florins.”

Ross King’s 2000 national bestseller, Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture tells the tale of how a 41-year-old goldsmith and clockmaker, Fillipo Brunelleschi, won the competition and devoted the rest of his life to solving the monumental puzzles of the dome’s construction.

A model of the vaulted dome, considered sacrosanct by the Opera, had been in place since 1367. Neri de Fiorvanti’s bold design rejected the use of external supports such as flying buttresses which were considered ugly and awkward by Italian architects. Instead, he designed the double-skinned dome to be supported by a series of internal circumferential rings that would make the dome seem to rise skyward without any visible means of support.

The problems faced by Brunelleschi were practical but daunting: how to support the weight of the massive dome without external support, how to safely build it without scaffolding, and how to hoist an estimated 70 million tons of building materials several hundred feet above the ground and put them into position with pinpoint accuracy. Brunelleschi’s winning proposal for building the dome not only did away with any external support, it also did away with the wooden centering used for building even the smallest of arches. His daring ideas combined with his penchant for secrecy led many to consider him a madman.

Author Ross takes Brunelleschi’s enormous challenges and sets them against a background of bitter rivalry, political intrigue, Black Plague, imprisonment and war, weaving a fascinating tale of against-all-odds achievement. You begin to understand the scope of ingenuity, tenacity and determination that Brunelleschi possessed to have accomplished the seemingly impossible.

Keep in mind that this is the 15th century – you couldn’t make a phone call or two and order the required building equipment. Before construction could begin, Brunelleschi had to design and build a hoist to lift the huge weight of the building materials hundreds of feet off the cathedral floor. This complicated hoist, just one of many machines Brunelleschi invented for constructing the dome, went on to become one of the most celebrated machines of the Renaissance.

And consider the working conditions! The masons worked in a small space between the two skins of the dome, reached by climbing stairs the equivalent of 40 stories high to work each morning. They carried their tools and lunch with them, forbidden as they were from using the hoist. There was no system of scaffolding to break a fall – the masons moved around the outer layer of the cupola on narrow platforms made from willow branches supported by wooden rods inserted into the masonry, the only thing between them and a drop of several hundred feet to certain death. And yet, despite these conditions, only one worker died in the 16 years it took to build the dome.

After 140 years of construction, Santa Maria del Fiore was finally consecrated in 1436. A 1000-foot-long raised wooden platform, bedecked with flowers, was erected to carry Pope Eugenius IV safely above the crowds for the ceremony.

The dome, however, was not complete. The exterior surface had yet to be tiled and the facings of colored marble would take another generation to complete. The lantern at the top of the dome had to be designed and built. Yet another competition was announced, and again Brunelleschi’s design won.

The first stone of the lantern was consecrated in March 1446. Brunelleschi died a month later after a short illness. He was 69 years old and had worked on the cathedral site for more than a quarter of a century. Ross ends his tale by saying of Brunelleschi: "In his unquestionable brilliance the writers of the Renaissance found their proof that modern man was as great as -- and could in fact surpass -- the ancients from whom they took their inspiration."

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Upcoming events at Offramp Gallery

Quinton Bemiller Mural Unveiling
Sunday, May 15, 2-5pm


Mark Steven Greenfield: Doo-Dahz
May 15 - June 26, 2011
Opening Reception: Sunday, May 15, 2-5pm

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Short Takes: Herzog's Cave; Picasso's Guernica; Brueghel's Wedding Dance

Filmmaker Werner Herzog gives us rare access to the cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in southern France, with his fascinating 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The limestone cave contains some of the earliest known cave paintings in existence, perhaps from as long as 30,000 years ago. The cave is pristinely preserved due to a landslide that sealed the cave 20,000 years ago, and the quick action of the French government after the cave was discovered in 1994. Access to the cave is limited to a handful of select scientists, so if you're not one of them, this film is the best way to see what can only be described as a magical place.

Speaking of 3-D: After reading this article in the Huffington Post last week about the 74th anniversary of the battle that inspired Picasso's dramatic anti-war statement, Guernica, I stumbled on the following video, "A 3D Exploration of Picasso's Guernica." Unlike Herzog's film, you don't need special glasses to view this one.

Inspired by the royal wedding last week, I went to the Art Authority app (click here to read my review) on my iPad and typed in "wedding." The results led me to The Wedding Dance by Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, painted in 1567. I doubt the Royals in Buckingham Palace were having any more fun than these lusty peasants in the great outdoors. And check out those codpieces!

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, "The Wedding Dance", circa 1566, Detroit Institute of Arts

Upcoming Events at Offramp Gallery
Mark Steven Greenfield: Doo-Dahz
May 15 - June 26, 2011
Opening Reception: Sunday, May 15, 2-5pm

Mark Steven Greenfield, Portrait of George Walker, 2010, pen & ink on Duralar, 36" X 24"