Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New Art - The Resume

The Resume is the latest installment in my 'Plantation' series. The goal is to have about 20 pieces of art for exhibition that tells the story of the enslaved through the use of modern iconography and concepts to form a connection with the past. The resume is obviously based on the fugitive slave ads placed by many slave owners to secure their property. When I see them, I see a disgruntled worker fed up with his working conditions and without notice decided it was time to move on. Happens all the time with only one exception, we secretly send out resumes ahead of time and try to find another job to transition into. Why shouldn't a slave have done the same thing if it was available to them? Makes sense to me.

Just in case someone thinks I was being funny and mean, the text used on the art is taken directly from fugitive slave ads. I downloaded a huge file of ads and compiled many of the descriptions into each resume. It was against the law to
 teach a slave to read or write so it makes sense that they would use their owners descriptions of themselves as reference in their fictitious resumes. The only thing I changed was the pronoun usage.

The Resume for Freeman the Shoemaker
35" x 49"
(select to enlarge)

The Resume for Emily the Seamstress
35" x 49"
(select to enlarge)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Welcome Home - Juan Logan!

One of my favorite artists, Juan Logan, an art professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recently posted a new video, "Welcome Home". For those unfamiliar with this creative beast of an artist, here is a short write up about the video:

Welcome Home, the title of Juan Logan's video ironically refers to the words of an older white woman welcoming a white family back to the plantation and its values. Images of a young white woman amidst an army of hooded Klansmen, which celebrates their "protection" of her womanhood, alternates with scenes that include a smiling Uncle Remus, happy in the supposed paternalistic embrace of slavery and Jim Crow, a black "coon" cat running scared from an unseen adversary, Civil War battles, and the face of a young black male, of the present as much as of the past, in the process of being erased. Logan digitally alters the imagery in the video to visually magnify its drama and draw attention to the frightening power of racial caricatures to shape our current perceptions and actions.

In Welcome Home, Juan Logan samples and alters imagery and sound from D. W. Griffin's silent film Birth of a Nation (1915), Walt Disney's live action/animation feature Song of the South (1946), Disney cartoons, footage of a 1920 Ku Klux Klan rally at the Washington Monument, and still photographs of the 1858 bombing of Charleston, the latter borrowed from the archives of the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Although born in the South, Logan’s artworks address subjects relevant to the American experience as a whole. At once abstract and representational, his paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, and videos address the interconnections of race, place, and power. They make visible how hierarchical relations and social stereotypes shape individuals, institutions, and the material and mental landscapes of contemporary life. For instance, the silhouette of a head, which appears in many of his works, confronts the viewer to implicate him/her in the politics of social space, even in galleries and museums. He has shown extensively nationally and internationally, has had numerous solo exhibitions, and executed many private and public commissions. Logan’s works can be found in private, corporate, and public collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Gibbes Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Memphis Brooks Museum, the Zimmerli Museum of Art, and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Logan’s awards include fellowships from the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, the North Carolina Arts Council, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, the Carolina Postdoctoral Scholars Fellowship, and the Phillip Morris Companies. 

I think it's easy to see why I love this man and his art.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Patrick Nagel, Playboy and Ebony Magazine.

Patrick Nagel has without doubt had the most impact on the visual style of my art. His clean, clinical execution, aggressive use of space and color to create stunning erotic compositions that were then sprinkled with sophisticated design elements combined to produce art that easily defined a generation and made the man an icon to fashion, erotica, advertisers and gawkers like myself.

Patrick Nagel
Patrick Nagel made his presence known in a rather unusual place - underwater. I was an avid artist from my earliest memory but had no real interest in art other than the fact that it afforded easy A's throughout junior and high school. My art teachers begged me to go to art school (one offered a scholarship) but alas, I declined. After a horrible stint in college attempting to pursue a career in medicine (I lasted a year at the University of Florida), I ended up in Houston, Texas, endured two years in that hell hole and joined the Navy to escape. By the way - art had abandoned me. Aimless, I volunteered for submarine duty and in 1983, 600 feet somewhere beneath the north Atlantic Ocean squirming like sperm in what could easily be described as a iron cock the length of a football field, Mr. Nagel appeared from the pages of Playboy Magazine.

Like many before and after, I was immediately taken by the stunning graphics that resided in the midst of Playboy's advisor column. So moved was I that I rounded up every issue I could find, cut out the pics and catalogued them in a journal that I kept. I studied the lines and compositions like a biblical scholar pouring over the dead sea scrolls. I was mesmerized and for the first time in my life, I actually wanted to be an artist! I would spend many days and nights (both the same on submarines) sketching his creations and then applying the style to my own creations. When I was not onboard, I would reproduce large Nagels on the walls of my efficiency apartment (yes, directly on the wall - and no, I didn't get my deposit back). Even the bottom of my Murphy bed had a huge Nagel on it. The style was easy enough to duplicate, but it was the innate combination of design, color and composition that made a Nagel a Nagel and I wanted more than anything to unlock that mystery. Unfortunately, by the time I left the Navy in 1987, Patrick was deceased (he had a heart attack at the age of 38 in 1984) and the art world was left wanting. By then, I could pull any image from the pages of Elle Magazine and create what I felt was a genuine Nagel.

After the Navy I started working at an art gallery and on the side would create my version of Nagel's to sell at mall art stores. I was soon getting commissions and started to adapt the style to feature black women. I wanted to be an illustrator and more importantly, wanted to be associated with a magazine the way Nagel was with Playboy, or Vargas with Esquire and Rockwell with the Saturday Evening Post. Since erotica was the natural style for the work, I sent a few images to a black erotic magazine, Players, out of Los Angeles. They responded favorably and offered a paying gig that I readily accepted and began supplying them with work that was by then a variation between Nagel and Vargas. The collaboration didn't last long as they published but with no contract they refused to pay on time and we soon went our separate ways. By then (around 1990), I had learned all I could learn from Nagel's style and since it was not my own (I was growing tired of people thinking that was all I could do), I retired the style but kept with me the crisp and clean look. The last time I painted anything in that style was a portrait of my then girlfriend, now wife, Cathy (I let her help me paint it). 

Cathy's Portrait

So, beyond that, how did Patrick Nagel get my art career started? I told you that like him, I wanted to be associated with a magazine and noticed that Ebony Magazine had little to no graphics in their pages. So I decided to do like Nagel and paint some images (not erotica!) and stuck them in some presentations of Ebony's advisor column which had no art. I mailed them off and a little over a month later, received a message after a lunch break to call John Johnson, the CEO of Ebony Magazine. I was on my way....or so I thought.

It took an hour for me to call Mr. Johnson, that's how nervous I was. In that time I had imagined every question he could possibly ask from inspiration to salary and yes, I would be happy to relocate to Chicago for a job in the art department. Unfortunately, the first question out of his mouth was one I didn't see coming. "Mr. Quashie, what the fuck are you trying to do to my magazine?" And the conversation went downhill from there. Over the next few minutes (it felt like a lifetime), the man unleashed on me and told me how he hated artists, how I knew nothing about magazine publishing, how he started the magazine and built it into the world's best selling black publication and most important, his magazine was number one because they dealt with 'issues relevant to black America.' He hung up shortly thereafter and I found the deepest hole I could find to hide in.

I remembered a cover of an Ebony Magazine a few years back that had 'Prince and his intriguing women.' Really. A picture of Prince and the women he was fucking! Now that was an issue relevant to black America. I was so incensed at the hypocrisy that I painted one of my first large scale paintings - my response to John Johnson - and titled it, 'EBONY - Issues (Ir)relevant to Black America.' I sat around with friends and literally had a page of teaser articles that were simply designed to make fun of the rag. 

I photographed the piece, placed it on a notecard (I don't remember what I wrote inside - knowing me, probably 'Fuck you, ass eyes!') and mailed it to John Johnson. No, I did not get a response, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that it felt good and for the first time in my life, I finally figured out what this art thing could be used for. I had literally found my voice (off pitch and untrained as it was), but a voice nonetheless. In that moment I also found my creativity and what triggered it...anger. I was Bruce Banner with paintbrush. From that point on I would give up trying to paint work that matched your drapes and carpet and focus on topics that pissed me off and I would my art to frame my response. From 93 - 96 I slashed and burned my way through art until I burned out in 96 and quit...but that's another story for another post.  

Friday, October 15, 2010

John Biggers and Winston-Salem

I spent the last couple of days in Winston-Salem, NC jurying an exhibition at the Associated Artists Gallery. I was a guest of the Executive Director, Sharon Nelson, and I must say, I had a wonderful time. I was recommended for the gig by my old friend Catherine Heitz-New whom I knew from the Waterfront Gallery here in Charleston. She now resides in W-S,NC and I miss being able to drop by the gallery and converse with her.

Disclaimer: I'm not a fan of juried exhibits. I gave up applying to them years ago and have juried three in my career. The reasoning is simple - too subjective. Juried exhibits have little to do with the art and reflect the sensibilities of the juror - way too much power for one person to hold. Panel juries are a little more democratic in my opinion. I was forwarded a CD with about 290 images and asked to reduce them to no more than 75. It took about 4 hours (I take the selection process seriously). What bothers me about the whole affair is the empathy I feel for the artists. It's been my experience that many of the artists who enter these kinds of exhibits are fairly new to the game and don't realize how subjective the selection process can be. There are so many factors that go into the decision (how the work is photographed, title, dimensions, what I had for breakfast, etc.). I'm a contemporary art man and therefore the show reflects that approach. Sorry. I had my eye on about ten pieces that I wanted to see in person and immediately dropped three from the award list upon view. I eventually settled on a mindboggling pen drawing as the winner from an asian artist living in Missouri. Congrats my friend, the piece was stunning on all levels.

I have to take the time to also give a huge shout out to Diana Greene, a local photographer who gave me a personal tour of the city (both halves) and then took me to Winston-Salem State University to see a stunning mural by John and James Biggers hanging in the O'Kelley Library:

"Ascension"                                                                       "Origins"

Both images are 15' x 30' and I hope that the student body is aware of what a treasure they have at their disposal. I could have stood there looking at them for hours. I smiled at the many references to one of my favorite Harlem Renaissance artists - Aaron Douglass. He was no doubt an inspirational force to Mr. Biggers as well. Here is the official text and history of the project.

In August 1988, Winston-Salem Delta Fine Arts, Inc. visited John Biggers at his studio in Houston to select works for an upcoming exhibition. After seeing some of the murals Dr. Biggers had painted in Texas, and after learning that during his 47-year career he had not painted one in his home state of North Carolina, Winston-Salem Delta Fine Arts decided to undertake a mural project for Winston-Salem.

John Biggers agreed to paint two works to be hung in the atrium of the new addition to the O’Kelly Library (then under construction). Delta Fine Arts agreed to commission the commanding paintings.  The artist presented the preliminary sketches for the murals in May 1990 and began painting in July.  Winston-Salem Delta Fine Arts presented the murals to the university on March 28, 1992.  Dr. Biggers was assisted by his nephew, James Biggers, Jr., an artist and art administrator for the Gaston County Schools.

The Biggers murals, Origins and Ascension, represent an integration of knowledge from many academic disciplines.  African mythology and folklore are fused with mathematical concepts, scientific theories, literary extracts, American historical events, sociological patterns and religious beliefs.

Click on the image to see them larger. To read about the symbolism contained within the murals, select this link: BIGGERS MURAL. I urge anyone venturing anywhere close to the campus to see this incredible paintings. Thank you Diana for dragging me over there!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Triple 'A' Monday - Grant Wood and Regionalism

During the late 80's and into the early 90's when I was still trying to figure this art thing out (I'm a little closer), I embarked on a semi-literate journey to explore works of art and artists that I had always heard of, but knew little of. One of the pieces that warranted investigation was 'American Gothic' by Grant Wood. Few people outside of the art world know the work by name, but I can assure you that everyone knows the painting on sight. It is as iconic as it gets:

Though I love the painting, what endeared me to this work was the story behind the canvas:

Grant Wood was born in 1891 in Iowa and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After WWI he traveled to Europe and was influenced by the technique used by Jan Van Eyck, a 16th century Flemish oil painter. During the 20's, he became one of three artists (Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John Steuart Curry of Kansas) known for their aggressive rejection of the european abstract movement in favor of more figurative and representational art that depicted surrounding urban and rural life. The idea of painting your immediate surroundings came to be labeled as 'regionalism'. In a phrase - paint what you know. What they knew was the midwest. Grant was drawn to the visual of the gothic revival style seen on a cottage (the upper window reflects the gothic medieval pointed arch) and wondered what 'kind of people' would live there. Using his sister, Nan, as a model for the woman and his dentist for the farmer, the painting reflected the rural lifestyle and informs the work.

The painting was displayed at an exhibition at the Art institute of Chicago in 1930. Grant won $300 for the painting and as they say, the rest is history. 
The 26" x 31" oil has come to represent Americana and has been satirized on many fronts which tells you how deeply ingrained in American lore it has become as well as being a primary symbol of the regionalist movement.

The concept behind 'regionalism' really hit home. I wasn't so much interested in the visuals of Americana, but rather, the theoretical planks in the movement's platform -
paint what you know. I understood and interpreted this to mean that if I wanted to connect with my audience in an authentic way, I needed to infuse my work with imagery and ideas that gave the viewer greater insight into what I knew. And what did I know - what was my brand of regionalism...Black America. That was to be my point of view. I felt so strongly about this approach to art that I illustrated it an early painting titled 'Point of View'.

"Point of View"
55" x 80"
silkscreen on canvas

What I declared with this piece was plain and straightforward - I don't care what's on the audience side of the canvas (which is why I painted it black) - this here ain't about you, I'm not painting to please you, nor am I painting to sell anything to you - I'm painting for me. That's me behind the canvas, eyeing, spying and seeing the world from a new perspective through the art. Everything I've painted since then attempts to duplicate this simple philosophy - use my art to illustrate my perspective as a black man in America. Pull the audience behind the canvas and let them see what I see, hear what I hear, feel, question, challenge, accept, reject or interpret. They may not understand it at times, but hey, sometimes I don't either which is why I often use the canvas to ask myself and others those questions.

As an homage to a philosophy that would guide me throughout my career as well as a sincere 'thank you' to Grant Wood and 'regionalism', I painted 'Black American Gothic'.  

"Black American Gothic" (original)

This was my take on Wood's classic. He used the image of the farmer and spinster daughter to illustrate his world, I used Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. The story of Black America is one of slavery, survival, transformation and adaptation. To me, nothing reflected that more than Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima. Who were they? Madison Avenue's version of fictional characters based on factual lives to market products. The history of rice production in the American south and its association with slavery is well documented. So is the use of 'uncle' to refer to old black men (Uncle Tom - Uncle Remus, etc). The same applied to Aunt Jemima. They represented docile domestic acceptance on the part of whites and as such became effective pitchmen.

Later on I looked at this piece and decided to update it in three separate paintings bearing the same title 'Black American Gothic'. 

 It slowly dawned on me that Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell had now replaced the former duo as America's most trusted faces. As a disclaimer, I have nothing against Oprah or Colin (what a great name!) - I simply used them to illustrate a point. I also added Tiger Woods to the mix to complete the 'family' motif. Oprah and Tiger are two of the biggest brands in the world of marketing and Colin Powell, one of the most 'trusted' blacks in America, so much so that he was used by the Bush administration to sell the Iraq war to the United Nations and the American public. 

So there you have it. Now you know why Grant Wood is one of my favorite artists and has informed and influenced my outlook on art. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Studio's are for Pu**y's

Sorry about the long lapse - been doing what I try to do best - paint! I have two exhibits approaching fast - 'Subjective Perception' at Benedict College, a solo, and a group exhibit I was recently invited to participate in at the I.P. Standack Museum at SC State University in Orangeburg, SC. I have already chronicled the problems (in a roundabout way to protect the innocent) with the exhibition at Benedict in previous posts. The exhibit at SCSU is a thick one dealing with some heavy stuff. Here is the overview:

"On Friday, October 22, 2010 at 6 PM, during SC State’s Homecoming Weekend, 
SC State’s I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium will open its next exhibition, Partnership in Social Justice featuring Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, created and circulated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust; and Transcending the Legacy of Slavery and the Holocaust an art exhibition organized by the Idea Coalition. The exhibition continues through Jan. 4, 2011."

SCSU will be exhibiting a couple pieces that I donated to them years ago, and I will also add three more images. I 'm in the process of finishing three new images for the Benedict show. I wanted to do a rather large magazine cover that's been in my head for quite some time now and would be perfect for the SCSU exhibit, but alas, I will not have the time to render it, so there it will remain until I decide to unleash it. I also have to go to Winston-Salem for a couple days to jury an exhibition and review portfolio's - so as you see, my time is being crunched.

Wondering about the title of this post, are you? I borrowed that phrase from a friend of mine, Valerie VanNorte, who used it on T-Shirts for a location movie shoot. I misappropriated it and applied it to my new situation. I'm back to painting in the kitchen. Between there and the garage is where all great artists live and create! ;-) 

As many of you may not know, the studio space I rented to do the 50' painting was the first one I had ever had (other than the studio at McColl during my residency). Now that the work is done, I could no longer afford it and am back to my creative roots. Rather liberating to tell you the truth. Try it sometime - it keeps you humble.