In Chromophobia, artist David Batchelor writes about the disdain of color that has long been part of Western culture — how muted tones symbolize power and bright color is trivialized or feared as representing the foreign, the feminine or the weak. I was reminded of this passionate little book when I saw the exhibition Rhythm-A-Ning, which is filled with paintings and sculptures that exemplify the aesthetic that Batchelor champions.
Rhythm-A-Ning, currently on display at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, features works by James Phillips, Charles Searles and Frank Smith, members of AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), a group of visual artists who came together to help define and promote a black aesthetic. This collective, founded in Chicago in 1968, is known for its oft-quoted goal of fostering a dialogue that is "pro-Black without being anti anything else."
The artists in Rhythm-A-Ning have created works that reflect the characteristics of jazz. The show is named for a Thelonius Monk composition; appropriately, jazz plays in the gallery, reinforcing the idea that improvisation is at the heart of these paintings and sculptures.
Frank Smith's pieced and sewn canvases are covered with paint applied in a loose, expressive manner. The enormous "For This Occasion" is filled with throbbing, sometimes calligraphic paint marks, a few recognizable images — in particular, a large mask — and what appear to be mountains or aerial views. The eccentric shape of "Awakening Spirits" — it is circular, but with odd protrusions — gives the painting the appearance of bursting out of the wall. Smith's best pieces are displayed like wall hangings, floating freely and unconstrained; in contrast, "Serenade by Squares," a work on Masonite, seems hemmed in by its rigid surface.
Smith's work incorporates occasional found or collaged objects, which often seem to be hiding in plain sight. Especially poignant is his use of the Liberty Bell "forever" stamp, an unremarkable object that Smith transforms into a quiet statement about the fragility of freedom.
Many of James Phillips' obsessive, celebratory paintings look like quilts at first glance, but they are actually acrylics on canvas. The two dominant pieces in this exhibition, "Sankofa 2" and "Flowers for Jeff," are dense with abstract patterns, but they also include recognizable imagery, including human forms, masks, a Horus figure, ankhs and arrows. Several paintings are composed solely of abstract patterns and decorative motifs; a number of other paintings have subtly embedded figures.
Charles Searles, who died in 2004, is represented by large wood sculptures, both freestanding and wall-mounted, as well as small works displayed on pedestals. Some of these brightly painted works could initially be mistaken for steel. Particularly striking are "The Meeting" and "Warriors," floor pieces in which there exists an appealing tension between the soaring wood shapes and the lively patterns that cover them. These sculptures express movement that seems almost choreographed; their eye-like holes also reinforce the notion that they may not be inanimate objects.
This is a lively show, rich with beauty and meaning. I do wish, however, that the individual works by each artist were at least partially grouped together. Instead, works by all three artists are vigorously interspersed. Because of this, some viewers may find it a challenge to get a handle on what each artist is trying to accomplish, particularly Phillips and Smith. Their works are similar enough in medium, palette and method of display that the differences can seem a little jarring — depending on your personal preferences, Phillips' paintings may look too controlled next to Smith's exuberant ones, or Smith's may look messy next to Phillips' meticulous ones. These are three impressive bodies of work that should be seen on their own terms.
The exhibition Rhythm-A-Ning will be on display through May 27 at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, 551 S. Tryon St. www.ganttcenter.org. 704-547-3700.