Monday, February 27, 2017

Beyond Category

From left: Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Willie-the Lion Smith
mid 1960's

Celebration of Black History Month concludes with a whirl of events here in town.  My own way to observe this is to say: what a privilege it has been to come in contact with great artists like these fellows in this blog post.  As an example, I took this photo many years ago after a recording session I attended in Bayside, Queens, N.Y. with the likes of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Willie-the-Lion Smith. I sat down to listen to the musicians and singer Joya Sherill with my father - who introduced me to Jazz and some of the major players and today I am in awe of the talents they possessed.

With a visual arts perspective, you might not know this but Duke Ellington came to New York City, from Washington, D.C. not only to play jazz but to attend Pratt Institute as a visual artist.

Luvon Sheppard being interviewed at The Memorial Art Gallery
February 26, 2017

Fast forward to 2017, and I am sitting listening to my colleague, Luvon Sheppard in a public conversation with Ephraim E. J. Daniels, one of our students from R.I.T.  In this interview, seen against a backdrop of recent artworks on easels - in one of the reception rooms at The Memorial Art Gallery - Luvon speaks of his early teachers, and the environment that he entered when he was a student at R.I.T. and abstraction was all the rage.

Luvon Sheppard's painting in "Memory of Trayvon Martin"

In the many years since that time, Luvon has become a treasured teacher and friend to many in our field, and he has a sensitive approach to his art that now blends a figurative sensibility with something more atmospheric.  In fact, figures do appear in the clouds, especially in paintings that sometimes attempt to deal with national tragedies like the killing of Trayvon Martin.  I would say that Luvon is reverent for life, for hope, and for feeling, especially between the values he places in his art and the people who come to view it, like the audience that gathered for his talk this past Sunday.

I also found a stimulating experience viewing the "chapters" of a visual book in the main galleries at the MAG called "Pax Kaffraria" by Meleko Mokgosi who is a painter originally from Botswana, Africa now living in the New York City area.

Part of the "Pax Kaffraria" by Meleko Mokgosi

A large crowd came to hear the painter Meleko Mokgosi in a "meet the artist" talk also at The Memorial Art Gallery last Thursday evening.  Introduced by Director, Binstock of the MAG, Meleko Mokgosi - who in his mid-thirties comes across as very erudite - is thoroughly grounded in a philosophical dialect known in academic circles as artspeak.  Let me  just say that the approach to talking about his paintings was handled by Meleko on a symbolic level - and not a kind of practical - how-to guide that some in the audience had expected.

Painting by Meleko Mokgosi
" Pax Kaffraria"
at The Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York

The paintings on exhibition have a photo-realist look, but Mr. Mokgosi says he is not so concerned with realism.  He does tell stories in his paintings, and they appear to be a series of vignettes - painted chapters of an ongoing story, maybe more symbolic than actual.  He visits, or quotes from social and political history of South Africa, and we are shown images of leaders like Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela that are painted like framed pictures hanging on a wall, all part of his larger opus " Pax Kaffraria".

He asks - How Shall I Portray Black People?  In art school he is taught how to mix a flesh tone for a figure that is not black...  What is it that these people should be doing?  How does he bring his visual dialog up-to-date?  His paintings include livestock and dogs, and pieces of the environment with little attention paid to landscape or place.  Meleko's figures more often float or are barely grounded in their own space.  This is an art of imagination and breadth, and I anticipate great things from this visual story-teller.  He has a style that articulates juxtaposition of dramatic elements, and in his paintings he reminds me of the style of the writer Don DeLillo ( often very dark ).

Meleko Mokgosi paintings also at Rochester Contemporary

Unless you have traveled widely, you might not have the necessary context to fully appreciate these paintings which bring to the forefront cultures and the notion of post-colonialist regions that we know from news reports in our newspapers here in the United States.  We need to know much more, and truly begin a dialog to have a sense of what is being said by an artist "beyond category" - as Duke Ellington, once said.

Meleko Mokgosi at "Meet the Artist"
The Memorial Art Gallery, February, 2017