Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Contemporary Consciousness

Rochester Contemporary Art Center

A celebration of Frederick Douglass is now on view at Rochester Contemporary Art Center and it is part of a larger enterprise reminding us of the accomplishments of this great man.  The title of the present exhibition "No Soil Better" comes from a speech that Douglass wrote many years ago, and it holds forth the promise that here, in these United States we have the best time and place to make a difference for our fellow human beings, no matter what race or religion or ethnic background they come from.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Thievin Stephen

At the entrance to the show there is a fine painted portrait by Thievin Stephen opposite a little library of books featuring the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass, and I am looking forward to reading these books in the future.  I want to know more about his time and his effect on this country.  The subtitle of this present exhibition is: "Art & The Living Legacy of Frederick Douglass" and that presents the opportunity for you to view artwork from 12 working artists and see how they come to terms with this famous man.

Opening night hand shake

I noticed an actor having his picture taken during the opening and I thought that this fellow was doing a very credible job - a performance artist impersonating Douglass - in front of a painting of Douglass.....

Reading room
as you enter
and the 
Frederick Douglass Monument

Also as you enter the show there are photos of the statue that memorializes Frederick Douglass, soon to be moved to a new location here in Rochester.  Artists, like my office mate Luvon Sheppard respond to what Douglass wrote, and what he stood for.  Luvon is well regarded for his watercolors made over the years in tribute to Douglass, and there are a group of them presented here.  Luvon's paintings include quotes from Douglass that echo the theme of this exhibition.  Carefully conceived, the portraits are made in layers and have a friendly but earnest glow.

Watercolor by Luvon Sheppard

Words also come up in many other parts of this exhibition.  Meleko Mokgosi has pencil drawings that set Douglass's statements on paper along with commentary and you can learn a lot by stopping to read all parts of these drawings.  In another section of this exhibition a large painting by Shawn Dunwoody appears to be at a demonstration with protesters holding signs that say: " I Am A  Man".  A fight has ensued with one man down, while the other hovers over him with a bright halo around the man left standing.  In big letters at the bottom of the canvas - the word is spelled out: RESIST - which seems to come up a lot now around the Trump Presidency.

Painting by Shawn Dunwoody

One might say that recognition of racial and social problems comes with the territory, and our hope is that there will be constructive efforts made to deal with these problems.  Art can point to these trends, but we still as a constituency have to organize to do what we can to deal with our problems. The visual arts can respond to social pressures - this is ripe material for artists of all stripes to wrestle with.  

Painting by Rodney Taylor

An arsonist's fire consumed property that Frederick Douglass owned and Rodney Taylor sums up the terrifying picture in the image above.  Connections to the time and environment in which Frederick Douglass lived is important, and with Caitlin Cass, the projections on the wall tell it like it was at the time.

Drawing and projections by Caitlin Cass

Around the corner there is a large and  recent drawing from Olivia Kim of a dancer, and here I am thinking more of  the exercise of the freedom of expression, but I am less sure of the connection to Douglass.  I think of Olivia and her engagement with the dancers in the Garth Fagan troupe and her drawing is full of life and vitality, and a sense of relief and hopes for the future.

Olivia Kim at the Opening of "No Soil Better"
Rochester Contemporary Art Center,
Rochester, New York
now thru March 18, 2018

What an inspiration to have an exhibition dedicated to Frederick Douglass.  I first heard of this celebration listening to Evan Dawson and Blue Cease in a dialog on radio station WXXI.  When I went to see the show I found many interesting artworks built around Douglass's life and writings which still have great relevance today.

Poster take away