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Race, culture and expression: 'Constructing Identity' showcases African American art
The curator of Portland Art Museum's newest exhibition, "Constructing Identity," says the museum has long been committing a crime: the "worst crime of omission," Berrisford Boothe says. It hasn't been actively exhibiting more culture-specific art displays.
But the exhibition now gracing the walls of the museum's upper halls through June will better "speak to the constituency," with its works by more than 80 African American artists from the 20th and 21st centuries, he says.
Director Brian Ferriso doesn't hide it: "We haven't had a show of this scale looking at specifically the output of African American artists in America," he tells the Tribune. And, it just so happens that February is Black History Month.
The most recent exhibition that Ferriso referenced with a cultural specific touch was the 2013 retrospective of Carrie Mae Weems, a Portland-based African American photographer whose art investigates issues of race, gender and society class.
Incidentally, Weems was the inspirational catalyst for the artistic career of one artist featured in "Constructing Identity": Mickalene Thomas.
Boothe snatched up one of her works for the show — called "Landscape Majestic," a massive woodblock silkscreen and digital print collage. He said her works can fetch up to $90,000. He said when he was in her studio, it was hard to catch his breath.
"It makes me proud to bring ... beautiful art that tells the true story of American lives, to tell the true story of an identity that doesn't exist outside of America," he says.
Though her art more often focuses on representations of black bodies, the art piece in this exhibition shows a hodgepodge of colors and shapes, with bits of landscape such as mountains and shrubbery in between the hard edges. It's a part of the "landscape" portion of the show, which has five other counterparts: "abstraction," "community," "faces," "gender" and "spirit," each of which offers a different route or peek into the souls of each African American artist.
Art pieces labeled under "faces" focus on the idea that black faces have never been seen as equivalant to European classical standards, more heavily favored in artistic expression throughout history, while gender-labeled artworks communicate the idea that so often females are often presented as images rather than active creators. "Spirit" works communicate the metaphysical identity of African American culture, while the "land" collection illustrates their relationship to the land.
"Community" depicts physical spaces, historical events and emotional expression as it relates to African heritage, and "abstraction" illustrates the ways that African American artists incorporate "Western notions of abstraction into their work," according to explanative panels for the exhibition.
"This is a show about the ability of the people to speak about themselves, for themselves," Boothe says.
Boothe is a professor of art at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, but first and foremost he says is a painter himself.
The collection of prints, sculptures, paintings and drawings comes from the much larger Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of nearly 230 works, started by Boothe and Jim Petrucci back in 2012.
Upon entering the exhibit, attendees are greeted by an untroubled "Wandering Boy," an oil painting from 1940 of a young man lounging in a loose fit white-collar shirt and tan hat.
His eyes evoke a sense of calm as if to tell visitors not to be afraid.
"He is not a threat by definition because of his color," Boothe says of the "wandering" boy's hues of browns, tans, even magentas. He says it's ironic that African Americans are so often referred to as black, which by definition means the absence of color.
"He's looking at you ... without threatening anybody, without yelling at anybody. It's an invitation for conversation," Boothe says.
Dialogue on race is simply another component behind "Constructing Identity."
Boothe adds: "Nothing of significance has interrupted America's discomfort or inability to find the language to address issues of race. Race — we don't talk about race — we think about talking about race. Once we do, language fails us very often and we find ourselves drifting toward cultural ... corners of reference."
The show is about history — a 100-piece exhibition that questions whether African American history has too long been an option rather than a mandate in America.
"It leads to the devaluing of your cultural brother," Boothe says. "I don't think a lot of people are exposed to the current history of the other."
Carol Chism, an adjunct teacher at Lewis & Clark College, attended the soft opening last week, was excited at the number of African American artists included in the exhibition — but especially that the exhibit might expose youth to a culture overlooked.
"A lot of young people haven't been exposed. A lot of young people don't know it's part of our history," she says.
Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith was also in attendance. Smith is only the second African American to serve on the Multnomah County Commission.
"You know, we have a very small African American community in the state. In Multnomah County, we have a 5.8 percent African American population ... we deserve to see this kind of thing," she says. "These are the things you see in Chicago and Los Angeles and New York."
Boothe echoed Smith that other parts of the United States are already in dialogue about African American art.
"Portland should be considered as an important hub historically for African American art. Why not?" he says.
Ferriso emphasized that it's important "this institute (Portland Art Museum) reflects the community we serve or aspire to serve. It allows the museum to feel greater ownership by the community."
Perhaps "Constructing Identity" will help the museum expand its own identity.
"It's about expanding our territorial voice and program to be more reflective of the world in which we live," Ferriso says.
"Constructing Identity: Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African-American Art" will be on display through June 18, with many events including regular tours talks, performances.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Portland Art Museum partnered with the Museum of Impact (MOI) — a "mobile social justice museum." MOI has provided a small gallery at the end of "Constructing Identity," in a room called The Art is Ours gallery, which includes a reading lounge of books about African American art history and artists in the exhibit. There also is a wall where Portland artists of color may engage by writing down and hanging their own responses to artwork in the exhibition.
Find out more and see a list of events at http://www.portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/constructing-identity.