By Ann Starr
6 July 2013
Art for Community Expression, Enduring in Columbus
Art for Community Expression has mounted over 200 art shows in Columbus since it was founded in 1979 to assist African American artists develop and show their work, and to raise funds for trips to Africa. ACE’s membership places self-taught and naive artists shoulder-by-shoulder with those trained in art schools and universities. The non-profit is an exemplary community cultural institution and a model of mutuality. It provides professional mentoring as well as social inspiration and support.
Pepper Johnson curated the current show, just opened at the ROY G BIV Gallery. Works by Kojo Kamau and Queen Brooks, two of the founding members, are included. So are pieces by Vivian Pittman and her mother, Barbara Thomas, two who have also been long prominent in the ACE community. Among the names of Columbus legends, though, are plenty of artists who have come to ACE at different points throughout its thirty-four year course.
April Sunami’s tiny mixed media painting, Pensive One, seems a fitting emblem for the whole show. Against a background of gray tones, and outfitted in the same foggy shades, an alert young woman’s head explodes with masses of color and texture. This is more than an afro hair style. It’s blooming imagination, ideas, and promise—what takes one away from gray space. The girl won’t be pensive for long. She can maintain her stillness only so long before the tempest will propel her to a colorful place. She’s the spirit of this show, the symbol of the need to express oneself through art. To turn oneself inside out to do it.
I liked Karl Francis’s untitled photograph both for itself and for the contrast it made with Sunami’s pensive girl, dreaming her actions. Francis’s break dancing boy has entirely exerted himself in body and passion. He has created a situation virtually the opposite of the girl’s. In his world, he is fully alive in his motions in the middle of a dance floor, while, all around him, people stare into the distance, check their telephones and appear too lazy even to maintain themselves standing erect. It’s a great image of caring, engagement, and indomitability.
Bruce Robinson also models commitment and consequences in his wall-mounted wood cut- out, Pressure Points. Sawed from pressed plywood, Robinson’s industrial material and the graphic boldness the design of his colors heat up the classical pose: A man bears his wounded brother to likely death. Under one foot of the rocker on which he balances is the word “Nature;” “Nurture” is under the other. The tattoo on his arm reads “NO MAS.” A handgun fills the red “O.”
I love Robinson’s blending of the urban and classical in this piece. The figures are placed in the pieta configuration, which reinforces the individuality and humanity of those shot and killed in the city. The artist has made a protest piece all the more potent because of its great heart and spirituality. Furthermore, he has made a work that is aesthetically fine. As composition, this is a satisfying study in line and color, in tension and relaxation as he ties, knots, and untangles limbs, lines, and colors from one another.
While April Sunami’s mental dreamscape sets the stage for this show’s thread about thought and action, it also suggests the strong motif of the lyrical that is so refreshing here. While there is plenty of work to remind us of racial and social issues, there is much that reminds us why hearts sing too.
Barbara Thomas’s Eagle in the City suggests that urban strength, order, and justice can prevail. The mighty eagle, poised before the flag that occupies a huge amount of literal and symbolic space, reassures us. It’s an avenging protector: a mighty angel with a sword of wrath; a righteous hero with super powers.
Thomas paints in watercolors, not often seen on canvas this size. There is a washy appearance to the painting that is strangely complementary to the image of the mighty bird. The world protected strikes me as a city of pastel tranquility, to be kept that way. Its relationship to a city where Robinson’s tragedy can occur feels almost impossible. Perhaps the eagle here is more to a guardian who prevents the marauders from coming to despoil a peaceful urban neighborhood in the first place.
In a folkloric vein, Florstine Yancy-Jones presents an irresistible Flower Garden in which every flower bed blooms in happy simultaneity, all beneath a sky that reflects the floral palette below. This painting offers all the joy of work so literal that it cannot begin to represent what it takes such pains to imitate. What the artist gives us though, is so much better than reality: colors more saturated, details focused beyond the capability of the human eye to pick out, and a compositional perfection that fades when we awaken from the sweetest of dreams.
At every show I go to, though, I always ask myself—or a companion, to start a good discussion—which piece I would take home if I could. In this year’s ACE show, I’d take the most colorful and ebullient of all, a painted wooden wall hanging by Heath Allen Woodruff, an artist until this moment unknown to me.
The work is glossy, bright, and child-like. It is based on the sort of literalness that is endearing yet reassuring: The grass grows underneath the mountains that rise into the sky; the trees grow from the mountains and the birds sit on their boughs. It represents a known world in which everything is both literally and symbolically ordered. There is no imaginable way to go wrong. God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.
In this work, the natural order is expressive of human moods. The mountains are as happy as people with flower arms; with as many arms as it takes to express riotous joy over perhaps the color itself in life.
Even to accept the mountains as mountains is to cheat ourselves of all the life contained in this piece. The extensive decoration of the forms could be read as fancy textiles with embroidered circles—fantastical burqas. The “mountains” could be cities, or far-out apartment buildings in an ebullient society in a peaceful world.
The ACE show will remain at ROY G BIV through July 27. It’s very rare to find a show like this because there are so few institutions like Art for Community Expression, which hold their arms wide open to anyone who defines him/herself as one who needs or wants to be an artist. Artists are people who feel compelled to make art.
To anyone for whom art-making is a motive, goal, or aid, the rest of us can only offer applause. Criticism in the sense of aesthetic judgment is rarely of any value to any artist happy in and conscientious about her or his job.
This is something I admire vastly about ACE as an organization. Making art is always a good thing, and ACE always pitches in to encourage anyone who wants to do it. So, in this democratic-minded organization, whose work gets in the juried show? The work with something to say that says it clearly and with conviction. At least, you see a lot of that in this show.