By Sandra Schulman
Pulling from a deep collection and even deeper current events, the Norton’s curator Cheryl Brutvan has amassed a stellar exhibit of works from African-American artists.
In Art Finds a Way, she builds on some of the buzzier names the Norton owns – Nick Cave’s zany tribal Space Suits, Mickalene Thomas’s hyper-decorative collage paintings – and adds in both well-known names and some that will be new to viewers.
Taking up three large rooms on the ground floor, Art Finds a Way works in tactile ways by partnering lightboxes with tar paintings, tapestry with metallic sculpture, and video with nylon flags. From the darkest paths of Black history to the pure poetry of a garden, the art here casts a wide net over the collective experience.
One of the more powerful works is by art star Kara Walker, whose tapestry reproduces an etching from an 1863 issue of the newspaper Harper’s Weekly that documents the burning of a “colored orphan asylum” that followed a mob riot in New York during the Civil War.
Over the tapestry she has pasted a large felt silhouette figure of a tormented woman, holding a braided noose with a bow. The contrast of the sepia fabric and the jet-black felt is jarring, the intricate image of the flames rising above the small rioting figures gives an overwhelming sense of danger and despair. Walker has made a career of reviving the cut-out silhouette; it works here to powerful advantage.
Los Angeles-based Calida Rawles merges realism with poetic abstraction through watery, immersive paintings. In Guardian, a woman in a white dress floats in clear water. Her head is unseen above the water line but her body is reflected above her in a nervy trick of perspective. It has a dreamy quality, her hands holding down her billowy white dress in a fluid modesty. She’s not wearing a bathing suit, so is this baptism?
The title, Guardian, makes a case for a water goddess. Rawles employs water as multifaceted material to portray womanhood, tranquility, otherworldliness.
A more masculine concept of the Black art experience is found in Hank Willis Thomas’s Opportunity, a fiberglass sculpture of an arm in the process of either catching or throwing a football. The bronze metallic gleam shines.
Other powerful works include a gender race mashup in Nina Chanel Abney’s Strut For Noah, and a small but powerful photoshopped image of black children with a moving truck by Robert Pruitt.
Brutvan makes the case for the exhibit in a statement posted on the Norton website: “This exhibition, in part, presents art by Black artists – most of which was created before this summer – revealing racism, violence against Black bodies, and legalized discrimination practiced in America that have been for too long an experience for too many,” she writes.
“Using personal stories, this country’s history, as well as popular culture and fictional narratives, Black artists ask us to consider this reality through their artworks: art finds a way to make us think, feel and act.”
Art Finds a Way runs through May 30 at the Norton Museum of Art. Hours are currently limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic; the museum is open Thursday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The first hour of each day is reserved for Norton members and their guests. Admission is free for members, $18 for general admission, and $15 for seniors. Visit norton.org for more information.