May 7, 1995

New York Times Review

ART; In Bridgeport, More Than a Touch of the 60's Revisited

THIS year at the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport has metamorphosed into the Year of the Connecticut Artist as well as the 30th anniversary of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, grounds for further celebration. It takes the form of "Roots and Reality," a show that, given its cast of 16 black artists, has more than a touch of the 60's revisited.

James W. Montford's "Carrousel," for example, is an installation involving a double portrait to two black children reproduced 35 times as a grid mural. In front of this on the floor are nine pairs of small hinged boards that are colors on one side and simulated blackboards on the other. They stand in a circle, enclosing another circle that is a strip of plywood lettered with thoughts about racism, including one that asks, apropos the carrousel, "Where is the horse for the kid who is black?"

The same lament is implicit in Margaret Andrews's black and white photographs of children: a boy and girl stand behind a chain-link fence as if in jail; a young boy, squeaky clean in a white shirt, peers mournfully out from under the protective arm of a crossing guard.

The artists seem to be saying that despite the civil rights movement, things have changed little if at all in cities like Bridgeport. They may have grown worse, Ayubu Ben Johnson implies in "Hi-Tech Blues." This image, impressionistically painted in hot pinks, features men defined by their legs as they hang around on a street, waiting. As the artist notes sarcastically in his caption, the dictionary definition of the technology that has put his subjects out of work is a "system whereby a society provides its members with those things they need or desire."

Though it illustrates the point well enough, the picture cannot compare with others by the same artist, notably the all-gray image of prison bars grasped by human hands that, repeated in rows, has the look of a print. Different but no less impressive is Mr. Johnson's portrait of John Coltrane, the sum of many bright colors applied as if by stencils.

Representation comes in many styles but none so exact as in the figure paintings of Barkley L. Hendricks. The artist has long been known for his portraits of extravagantly dressed models, usually women, who seem oblivious to the impression they give or are too weighed down with anomie to care. Thus the young redhead called "Ma Petite Kumquat" faces front wearing a black coatdress with a green tasseled cord slung over one shoulder like a bandolier and furry leg warmers. In another work, a young black woman wears a white gown, gold earrings, glasses and unconcernedly presents views as if for a wanted poster. But there is a young man, also portrayed three times, who obviously exults in his costume of wide-brimmed green hat, shiny green coat with white fur and multiple zippers and platform shoes.

Contrasting with these life-size oils are very large watercolors of apparently more recent vintage that pay homage to those produced in the Bahamas by Winslow Homer. But Mr. Hendricks, ever offbeat, devotes most of his space to pale sky, adding along the bottom a horizon defined by shrubbery, palms and in one case a tiny gray lighthouse.

Mr. Hendricks may be the star of the show but he gets competition, notably from the sculptor James L. Buxton Jr., whose large gate stands by the entrance to the show. Within a frame made of sharpened saplings are rows of sticks, spheres and wood elements resembling bottles in outline. Because it is painted black, the piece automatically evokes Louise Nevelson, which is a pity because Mr. Buxton has little but the use of black in common with his predecessor, being less a manipulator of found wood objects than a carver of the raw material. His unpainted relief consisting of a shield shape stuffed with twigs also repays attention. Befitting its title, "Roots and Reality" includes items that refer to the black American past.

Part of Colleen L. Coleman's altar assemblage "Cargo of the Spirit" is papered with a reproduction of the seating plan on a slave ship.

Yohuru Ralph Williams contributes a portrait of his grandmother with a carved coconut husk for a head, a sarong made from a banner imprinted with the words "American Revolution," and other tropical items found in the Bridgeport neighborhood. With this figure, Mr. Williams acknowledges the medicinal and probably magical powers of his grandmother. But with his smaller assemblages -- small silhouettes compiled of plastic wiring, toy guns, beer caps, crack vials and other urban detritus -- the artist could be saying something quite different.

Curlee Raven Holton takes note of Western customs impinging on African life by contrasting color photographs of young Africans in their habitat with oil paint applied as impasto. Phillip Fortune celebrates the beauty of blackness in photographs of a woman, manipulated and tinted.

As one of Connecticut's struggling urban musuems, the Discovery seems exactly the right place for these issues. The show is hardly agitprop but it leaves a viewer wondering if black American aspirations can survive, given the present climate in which everyone, everywhere seems to be getting theirs.

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