Sunday, September 07, 2008

Adventures at the Wichita Art Museum #4: David C. Driskell

UPDATE: Here is the travelling schedule for the exhibition. I keep forgetting there's this thing called Google . . .

African Saint. 2005. Linocut. Image found here.

A black man, certainly serious, perhaps a bit bemused, peers through the eyelet at the top of his stylized shepherd's crook at the world, his head cocked as if to see/understand it more clearly. This print, part of the Driskell exhibit at the Wichita Art Museum through November (the companion text is Evolution: Five Decades of Printmaking), strikes me as a quick summary of what Driskell's art is about: an exploration, via the decidedly mainstream Western medium of printmaking, of equally-mainstream subjects and themes in Western art history via an African-American gaze.

As I walked about the exhibit yesterday, I got that sinking feeling one sometimes gets when encountering a previously-Unknown Unknown: I'd never heard of Driskell before but felt I should have. Fortunately, yesterday's dreary weather kept folks away from the museum, so the exhibition space was basically empty except for me and these accessible yet intellectually- and emotionally-engaging works. As it turns out, Driskell is held in extremely high regard: the University of Maryland has recently opened a major center for the study of African-American and African diaspora art and named it for him. Indeed, his biography credits him with establishing the study of the history of African-American art as an academic discipline.

The WAM does not yet have any works by Driskell in its permanent collection; the Kansas connection is that Driskell studied for a time with Henry Varnum Poor of Chapman, Kansas, who founded the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, where Driskell studied in the 1950s. But no matter how tenuous the Kansas connection, I'm very glad this exhibit is here, and you local art mavens should be as well.

Below the fold: more about that shepherd's crook, and a couple more images.

Think of that crook as being analogous to a keyhole of a closed door and of African Americans historically having had to peer though that keyhole at all things Western even as African and African-American art and cultural forms are appropriated by the mainstream. Just as one example: An important touchstone for Driskell is Picasso's early Cubist paintings--many of Driskell's still lifes look like they could be woodcut copies of Picassos. But it's not so much that Picasso is an Influence in Driskell's work--it's more like he is peering through Picasso to revisit one of his sources of inspiration in African masks. In Eve and the Apple II (1968; image found here), there's a visual indebtedness to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (and perhaps as well to De Kooning's Woman series). But whereas Picasso's prostitutes manage to convey an emotional blankness as they regard the viewer, Driskell's Eve seems to be on the verge of speaking. Perhaps it is the swell of her abdomen that creates that sense in me--if she is pregnant in this image, this is a post-lapsarian Eve (Adam and Eve conceive their children after the Fall), an Eve who indeed would have plenty to say (though, curiously, in Genesis Eve speaks after the Fall only when having given birth to Cain (4:1) and Seth (4:25)). Thus, though Driskell's is obviously a more recent image than his ostensible influences, it actually feels older. Driskell's Eve invokes the story of the Fall (note the Tree in the upper-right of the image) but also a story even older than that: the story of Creation and its human manifestation in the ancient, transcultural esteeming and worshiping of fertility--the cross-sectioned apple revealing its seeds in the lower-right, placed even with Eve's abdomen. "I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord," Eve says when she gives birth to Cain; despite the Fall, it is through conception and birth that humans have some small sense of what being a Creator is like. You can't get much more primordial than that.

Similar to Eve and the Apple as regards its dialogue with the Western tradition is Reclining Nude (2000; image found here). Driskell's woman again recalls Picasso's but also any number of other similarly-posed women in the tradition of Titian's Venus of Urbino. But surely her ample breasts and hips are gestures as well toward ancient depictions of fertility goddesses; the swirls and curves of vegetation that frame her body likewise convey a sense of lushness that complements the evocations of fertility and, even more fundamentally, the life force.

Though these are representative works, the exhibition demonstrates that Driskell works in a variety of other styles as well, ranging in their technique from the elegant to the crude, from the single subject to the densely-populated, from black-and-white to dizzyingly-colored works that create a collage-like effect. Given the WAM's relative thinness of its holdings in African-American art, it's a real treat to have this fine exhibition here for as long as it will be here.


R. Sherman said...

Thanks for this review. I'll keep my eyes peeled should his work appear in my neck of the woods.


John B. said...

You're most welcome. As you can see if you return here, I've now posted a link to the exhibition's schedule; so far, the Wichita venue is the closest to you. But I hope it goes elsewhere; it deserves to, I think.