Black Art in Jersey City

By Vivien Raynor

Copyright© 1981 The New York Times

Jersey City

Those viewers who missed "emerging and ESTABLISHED," the show recently held at the Newark Museum, have a chance to see it, or something like it, at the Jersey City Museum through July 31.

Selected by Samuel Miller, director of the Newark Museum, and Fearn Thurlow, its Curator of Painting and Sculpture, the display features the same 30 black artists, all residents of New Jersey, but some are represented by different work.

It's doubtful whether any review relishes art chosen for the racial background or sex of its makers, since esthetic standards are inevitably relaxed in order to accommodate the political impulse. In this case, however, it looks as if the participants themselves were not especially interested in the idea of "black" themes.

Compared to other such shows seen by the writer, this one is much less racially oriented. There's a sprinkling of works dealing with specifically black subjects - for instance Don Miller's portrait of a Sudanese wrestler set against a scene of the sport itself, and Marian Howard's fine pen-and-ink line drawings of a warrior and a woman with child, all of which seem to have been derived from photographs.

Generally, the lush colors and ornamental surfaces that once characterized a great deal of African-American art are not in evidence, nor is there much emphasis on the plight of being black in a white society. In short, this comes close to being a group show like any other, with a bias toward the figurative.

Notable in that category is Wallace Conway's "The Spectators," an oil of men standing on a street corner that also may have been photographically inspired. The figures are silhouetted grey against a yellowish-grey cloud that may be dust coming from a scaffold on the left and veiling red traffic lights, turning them pink.

Ann Johnson has devised an impressionistic style that is particularly well suited to the subject of an open-air market in a hot climate. Expressed almost mechanically by dabs of impasto applied in horizontal lines, the scene consists of an awning shading a group of blue-green figures in the middle distance, with bright sunlight hitting what seemingly are rows of yellow, orange and pinkish-white produce in the foreground.

The landscapes of Vivian McDuffie hold the attention for a surprisingly long time, considering that they are technically quite insubstantial. Miss McDuffie works in an automatist manner with thin, wet washes of reds, purples and yellow.

Gladyce Sherman's technique is not dissimilar, except that, in her view of water and trees, she builds up her textures more, achieving a much greater depth.

Russell Murray's large study of a man in an armchair surrounded by house plants shows much promise in the boldness of its designs.

But the artist still has a way to go, anatomically speaking. The drawing of the figure's arms indicates a tendency to copy forms without understanding how they work.

Benjamin Jones, a Social Realist, makes his militant point with a figure of a black man decorated with gold stars and other collaged items, his breast emblazoned with the stenciled slogan, "Remade in the USA."

More effective esthetically, but no less aggressive in spirit is this artist's Pollack-like arrangements of colored and silver ribbon forms combined with collaged fragments - reproductions of juicy pink lips, candy bar labels, and so forth.

Other noteworthy figurative works include Margaret Kelly's seated woman executed in rich, translucent washes of some water-based medium, with paisley fabric collaged to represent a skirt. Janet Pickett shows talent and competence in her compositions of women in interiors, but the dry, fierce colors she uses have connotations of commercial design.

Contrasting sharply with these painters is Rex Goreleigh, a realist who has long been known for his scenes of rural black life. Here, he offers a fragile watercolor, in pinks, of a building beside water, as well as an oil, "Suppertime," in which a poor woman cooks on a wood-burning stove for her small children.

In this opinion, though, the best painter in both representational and abstract categories is James Coleman, whose large picture of an armchair on a red background bordered with purple is particularly good. Mr. Coleman outlines his forms in black marker ink and fills them with rich, solid acrylic colors.

As already indicated, the majority of the work is representational. Although Clyde Santana's large canvas, "Black Sun Number Three," involves several outlines of heads and a robot-like figure expressed by a network of black lines interspersed with colors, all on a ground of various greys, the effect is abstract.

On the other hand, Mel Holston's "Broadway" is entirely nonobjective, being a handsome, mazelike arrangement of stripes in red and brown, black, yellow and white.

If there is a general conclusion to be drawn from this exhibition, which includes fiber sculpture by Bisa Washington and color photographs by William May, it is that black artists are less involved than before in contemporary trends. There is a sense of a return to the reality of daily life.

Also on view at the museum through July 31 is a small show of Hopperesque watercolors by Marge Chavooshian, a Trenton resident. Assisted by a grant from the State Council on the Arts, Miss Chavooshian conducted a survey of architecture of the 19th and early 20th centuries in five New Jersey cities, paying close attention to color and ornament.

Although not always firmly drawn, the works are attractive and informative, particularly the view of a house in Elizabeth that has a white porch and onion domes covered in purple slate.

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