Who Do You See When You Look at Me?

I am so passionate about art because it is a mirror and a crystal ball. It shows us who we are and at the same time who we could be. True creatives often use their craft to help us see, and hopefully, see beyond the lies and misrepresentations – we can really use that now.

The French artist, Edgar Degas, said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”  That is a powerful message and an even more powerful mission. A stellar example of that power is Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male, a current exhibition at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. It is the work of Charlotte-based photographer and filmmaker, Jerry Taliaferro who photographed 34 African American men and then challenges the viewer by asking, “Who do you see when you look at me?”

In his artist’s statement Taliaferro writes, “Recent events point to the urgent need for conversations about the contemporary black American male. Sons is a humble attempt to reveal how black American males see themselves while encouraging a thought-provoking examination of how they are perceived. Perhaps this project can be the start of a conversation.”

Who do you see when you look at me?

When you enter the Sons exhibition gallery you start in a section called “Perceptions,” black and white photographs of just the faces of black men. The images are not identified, labels only ask Taliaferro’s provocative question. There are no clues or social cues to depend on for your answers; simply faces making your assumptions a testament to your experiences and beliefs.

As you move further into the gallery you enter the “Realities and Reconciliation,” area.  The same subjects from the previous section are named and identified through short bios as well as videos that are accessible using QR codes that you can scan with a smart phone or tablet. Once identified, you see men who run the gamut of the black experience. You can hear them talk about their experiences when others’ perceptions of them are inconsistent with who and what they really are. Dr. John T. Bullock, a Towson University professor and recently elected Baltimore City Councilman, talks in his video about what he and his wife, Jacquelyn, call the “Double oh!” When he introduces himself as a professor, or now as an elected city official, he often gets that surprised look and response, “Oh! Oohh! So, you’re a councilman?”

The video by comedian, Jason Weems, is a heartbreaking contrast to his occupation as he talks about having to keep his son from playing with a toy gun in the park fearing that a childish game of cops and robbers could lead to a real-life cop shooting first and asking questions later. Other subjects—all sons and fathers—include a hospital administrator, a county executive, a police officer, a disc jockey, a musician, a tech executive. community activists, educators, and attorneys; they demonstrate the diversity of black men, however, their experiences are strikingly similar.

Dr. John T. Bullock and his son, Thomas Joseph.
Dr. John T. Bullock and his son, Thomas Joseph.

During the preview, I had the opportunity to meet several of the men who are subjects in the exhibition. Many attended with their own sons and I was impressed by the confidence and optimism they exuded. Through Jerry Taliaferro lens these black men are now art, and to repeat the words of Degas, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Sons forces you beyond the perception to see, really see, fathers and sons—black men—as they are and as they hope to be—mirror and crystal ball.

Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male is on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture through 2017. If you’re in or near the Baltimore area, please go. It will change the way you see.

You’ll find more information on the exhibition and there’s a short film featuring some of the men in the exhibition at, http://lewismuseum.org/special-exhibition/sons-seeing-the-modern-african-american-male


Shchukin & Withers: Paris Made Collectors

Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr
Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr

The Arts & Leisure section of Sunday’s New York Times featured an article on Paris’ next landmark exhibition, “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,” opening at the Louis Vuitton Foundation on October 22. The exhibition features 130 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern works from the collection of this early 20th-century collector.

Shchukin, a textile heir and magnate, began buying art in the late 1890s, building a collection of 275 works before the start of World War I. He fled to Paris when his home and collection were seized by the state during Lenin’s purge of the bourgeois. The Russian government dismantled, nearly destroyed, but thankfully distributed his art to Russian Museums where the magnificent paintings languished in obscurity and the collector’s name was erased from their provenance. Now, though his grandson’s efforts, the collector and the collection are once again making art history.

Sergei Schukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)
Sergei Shchukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)

Shchukin’s story, through real, is the stuff of fiction. I couldn’t help but see the similarities between this real art lover-collector and, Lance Henry Withers, a fictional character in my recent novel, Provenance. Because of government persecution, they both sought refuge in Paris. Shchukin and Withers used art to heal the loss of home and loved ones. By collecting, they experienced Paris and life through the arts. Influenced by Gertrude and Leo Stein, they learned how to find beauty and meaning in Impressionism, post-Impressionism and Modern art—what they first perceived as canvases of colorful chaos.

The disposition of Lance Henry Withers’ collection is a primary theme in Promise, the second volume my Provenance series, due out in early 2017. Promise continues Withers’ story with the fate of his fictional and fabulous collection informed by research on collectors J. Paul Getty, Arthur Barnes, Walter Chrysler,  Joseph Hirshhorn, The Steins, The Rockefellers and others. Perhaps Sergei Shchukin should be on that list. Sounds like a great reason to do research in Paris this fall.

You can see the New York Times article about the Paris exhibition of the Shchukin collection here and, you can read about Lance Henry Withers’ collection in my novel, Provenance. You can find more information about the “Icons of Modern Art” exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation here.


Art Museums are Only for Certain Kinds of People…

That was a message I heard often during my years in the museum world. It could be a NATO – No Action, Talk Only – environment where diversity on all fronts – museum staff, artists in the collection, programming – was often faux aspirational rather than intentional. Ignoring the obvious, many of my colleagues were baffled by the fact that we could not attract more diverse audiences.

I felt a flicker of hope when I read the New York Times’ Night Out with Jerrod Carmichael article about the young, African-American comedian’s recent swing through the Whitney Museum of American Art. Though he was not represented in the works he saw, his take on the art was refreshing. He viewed it on his terms, relating to what could have been the un-relatable because art that reflects who he is and where he’s from still seems to be missing. Hopefully other people of color, young and old, will visit museums the way Jerrod Carmichael did. Even though they often won’t find their experience represented in a collection they can appreciate what they see by making of it what they will. If museums – who use everyone’s tax dollars – saw a broader audience, would they begin to collect and staff for a broader audience? If they come, will they build it? It would be interesting to find out.

Comedians seem to be the sages of these times (think Jon Stewart, Larry Wilmore and earlier, Dick Gregory and George Carlin) so perhaps Jerrod Carmichael can use his sense and sensibilities to help un-pucker the art world a bit. Diversity of color, shape, size, subject, perspective, ideas and intent are what make the arts wonderful – the audience should also reflect that.

Click here to read the Times article.

When Titans Take the Corcoran, The Cost of Studying Art Goes Up

Art WordWith the spoils of the Corcoran Gallery of Art going to already well-endowed institutions like George Washington University (GWU) and The National Gallery of Art, access to the art world just became more inaccessible.

The Washington Post reported that the Corcoran School of Art’s tuition is $16,000 less than GWU $47,000+ tuition and with a $1.56 billion endowment and a history of needs aware admission practices, will the less affluent be further challenged in their desire to study the arts? The National Gallery, as well as the Smithsonian’s, low stipend or unpaid internships already limit access for students without significant  financial resources, food and rent in the DC metro is ridiculous! That reality further compounds the problem of access.

While both institutions may well be appropriate stewards, the decision to divvy up The Corcoran between two Washington titans makes the already insular art world less accessible to students with talent and dreams but without means.

Art or Soup, Soup or Art

In Jane Wagner‘s 1985 masterpiece, “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” Lily Tomlin embodies characters with still relevaniStock_000001933707Smallt questions about how our society got where it is and where the hell we are headed. What is inspired and what is simply insipid?

Wagner’s script and Tomlin’s performance nail that question with Trudy, a homeless bag lady, as she ponders art is our society by holding up two found objects – a can of Campbell’s soup and an Andy Warhol Campbell Soup print. “Soup or art, art or soup?” she asks looking back and forth between the two.

I had the same dilemma when I saw a recent story today on Tida Swinton’s performance piece at MoMA – she is sleeping in a glass box in a gallery, is that art or is it soup? Soup or art? Like Trudy I’m gonna have to ponder this but I’m thinking Swinton’s performance would go well with crackers.