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Breaking the Surface

Two Large Shows Attempt To Venture Past the Assumptions Of First Impressions

VETERANS OF DOMESTIC WARS: Eddie urushima's "They Were Not Served/Lunch Counter" (above) at AVAM; (below) Romare Bearden's "Mother and Child" at the BMA (a gift of Dr. and Mrs. Abraham Genecin)

By J. Bowers | Posted 8/30/2006

Henry Ossawa Tanner and His Influence in America;

At the Baltimore Museum of Art through Nov. 26;

Two of Baltimore's major museums are tackling the big issues this year, with major exhibits that deal with the eternally polarizing concepts of race and class. The Baltimore Museum of Art's Henry Ossawa Tanner and His Influence in America explores the pioneering African-American master realist's enduring legacy as a source of inspiration to black American artists, displaying six major Tanner canvases alongside paintings, drawings, and photographs by his protégés and admirers. Meanwhile, the American Visionary Art Museum's 11th annual mega-exhibition, Race, Class, Gender (not equal) Character, features the usual mega-selection of work by an international roster of self-taught artists, designed to celebrate the different artistic perspectives that result from humankind's wildly diverse racial makeup.

Of the two shows, the BMA's Tanner showcase most succinctly addresses its intended theme. Though renowned for his earlier works, particularly "The Banjo Lesson," which portrays African-Americans with a grace and dignity rarely seen in 19th-century art, Tanner saw himself as an artist, not an activist. After attending school at Paris' famed Académie Julian, he decided to move to France permanently, thus neatly escaping America's post-Civil War racial tensions. Once there, Tanner made a marked shift toward religious scenes and landscapes--neutral, popular subjects that would sell readily without disrupting the accepted status quo.

Tanner is famously quoted as saying, "I cannot fight prejudice and paint." Still, it can be said that he fought prejudice by painting. His luminous, richly textured style, impeccable professionalism, and tendency to invite young painters--of any race--to his country home and studio in Normandy endeared him to the aspiring African-American artists of the 20th century, a long list that includes such heavy hitters as Tanner contemporary Hale Woodruff, the photographer James Van Der Zee, and Denmark expatriate William H. Johnson.

Thanks to Henry Ossawa Tanner and His Influence in America, even if you enter the gallery knowing nothing but Tanner's name, you'll come out knowing all of the above, and more. The six major Tanner works, borrowed from a private collector and the Des Moines Art Center and plucked from the BMA's holdings, are nearly devoid of overt African-American themes--only "The Building of the Pyramids," with its realistic depiction of Egyptian slaves toiling under slabs of stone, and "Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner," an 1897 portrait of his father, acknowledge their painter's race. But when Tanner's safe, European landscapes and religious tableaux are compared to paintings that visually reference his style or content, fascinating evidence of his unintended status as a major black icon appear.

The scraggly seaside trees in Tanner's sweeping 1910 "Le Touquet" compare interestingly with the similar copse in Woodruff's 1928 "Normandy Landscape." Woodruff's color palette here is largely brown and pale green, far earthier than Tanner's glowing, ethereal blues, but his generous, almost gloppy use of paint and the misty swaths of color that form the land in "Normandy Landscape" appear directly affected by Tanner's characteristic style.

Tanner's transcendent "The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water," which fully captures the wonder and terror of the biblical scene in rich, unfathomable blues, is the centerpiece of this collection, a masterpiece of the religious genre. Where Tanner elects to portray Christ's amazed disciples as racially neutral, indiscernible smudges, his later admirers became known for painting Christian icons as Africans and depicting realistic scenes of African-American worship. Albert Alexander Smith's 1930 "Baptism" is an excellent example, presenting a river baptism with the same pride and elegance as Tanner's early works.

Other works in the exhibit, like the riotously bright "Untitled (Red)" by 1960s abstract expressionist Beauford Delaney, are included to illustrate more abstract connections to Tanner's legacy. Like Tanner, Delaney chose to paint politically neutral works, but as colorful abstracts without any reference to race or culture, Delaney's works, and works like his, were a subject of controversy among fellow black artists. Whereas Tanner could get away with downplaying his race by painting European subjects, by the '60s, many black artists placed high value on producing Afrocentric art.

And then there are artists like James Van Der Zee, a 1920s photographer who, like Tanner, chose to ignore the so-called limitations of his class. While Tanner moved to Europe, adopting a nonconfrontational practice of not acknowledging any distinction between white and black artists, Van Der Zee took great pride in posing his photographic subjects in affluent, elegant clothing and surroundings. His photos depict a 1920s America that, sadly, too seldom was--beautiful, immaculately groomed black men and women, clad in furs and climbing into fancy cars, or poised in wedding finery amid opulent studio props. Tanner himself was one of the first artists to use photography as a compositional tool, under the tutelage of American master Thomas Eakins, but it's staggering to look at Van Der Zee's shots and realize that they were taken a mere 10 years after Tanner's excellent--but politically safe--"Le Touquet."

The level of immersion and comparison possible here makes Henry Ossawa Tanner and His Influence in America one of the best and most comprehensive surveys of African-American art history that Baltimore has seen in some time. For those seeking a lighter, more freewheeling, and far more modern look at issues of race and class, AVAM's Race, Class, Gender (not equal) Character delivers the goods--well, sort of.

Traditionally, AVAM's most successful mega-exhibitions hone in on one loaded social topic or theme--addiction, love, aging, to name a few. The broad parameters of race, class, and gender could each warrant its own show, though there are obvious connections and overlaps among them. Dealing with all three at once somewhat dilutes the impact of the exhibit's overarching theme--but you won't really mind, because the art at AVAM, as always, is staggeringly original, bizarre, diverse, and inspiring.

The show, fully contained in the museum's main building, is designed to begin with a visit to Nancy Burson's "Human Race Machine," a fascinating piece of user-operated new media that scans a photograph of your face, asks you to tag the corners of your features with little red X's, and finally presents you with on-screen, custom-generated examples of how you might look if you were white, black, Indian, Arabic, Asian, or Hispanic. Though the mouse-operated interface is a tad unreliable--the program occasionally quits midway through the process--the photographic end results are haunting and thought-provoking, forcing you to take a very personal look at race.

Louisiana mixed-media artist Morgan Monceaux is one of the few artists in the show who handily tackles race, class, and gender in one fell swoop. A vast collection of Monceaux's wall-mounted works is installed here, including his "First Ladies Series," a wall of pop-arty portraits of the first ladies from Martha Washington through Laura Bush, reminiscent of the rows of presidential portraits once displayed in many elementary-school classrooms. By giving the first ladies the same level of adulation and, yes, immortality enjoyed by their husbands, Monceaux slyly comments on gender inequality--and, of course, the glaring absence of anything other than white faces speaks quiet volumes about America's still-intact color barriers.

On an opposite wall, Monceaux's "Royals" series, painted 1993-'95, finds the artist striving to replace the Western idea of the English monarchy as the ultimate in royalty with images of international kings and queens throughout history, colorfully plastered with sequins, feathers, and other adornments. Everyone from "Queen Nzingha, Last Queen of Angola" to "Emperor Hirohito, Last Kingdom of the Rising Sun" is represented, their portraits surrounded by wild, hand-scrawled history lessons about their lives and times.

Similarly double-edged, a selection of "memory cloths" pieced together by members of the Amazwi Abesifazane Project, a South African movement to aid women who have been affected by apartheid, provides thumbnail looks at the violent crimes still perpetuated against black South Africans more than 10 years after the official end of apartheid. The brightly colored felt images are evocative in their simplicity and are wisely accompanied by firsthand accounts from their creators. They look to be precariously mounted to the wall, however, and the art looked in danger of falling during a recent visit.

The end of the museum facing the harbor brings things down a notch, both in connection to the themes and the size and scope of the work on display. A selection of works from perennial visionary hero Howard Finster's "American Flag Paintings" series are incendiary and lovely, but they have very little to do with the rest of the show--ditto Chris Roberts-Antieau's "fabric paintings," which ostensibly fall under the "gender" blanket but merely illustrate such safe topics as "Table Manners." Though skillfully made, they honestly look like something made by someone's grandma. More effective, the late, great British queer hero Burnel Penhaul has left behind four deliciously gaudy, glammy Miss Alternative World pageant costumes, which look like something Chris Tucker might have worn in The Fifth Element.

The show's surprising visual suckerpunch is delivered by the late Chinese peasant Ku Shu Lan, who decorated the cave she shared with her husband by mastering the ancient Asian art of paper cutting, painstakingly scissoring brightly-colored sheets into fantastical floral designs and a recurring, mystic "paper-cutting goddess"--Lan herself in iconic form. The sheer amount of work produced by Lan is staggering, and when displayed en masse, as they are here, their supercharged oranges, fuschias, and blues are an overwhelmingly powerful force. Though not nearly as neatly categorized or straightforward as Henry Ossawa Tanner and His Influence in America, Race, Class, Gender (not equal) Character is an equally worthwhile way to spend an afternoon, particularly if you're in the mood to browse a selection of art that remains eye-catching without an obvious agenda. It concludes it's yearlong run at AVAM this weekend.

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