African American Art in Chicago, 1900-1950

at Robert Henry Adams Fine Art, through October 30

Al Loving: Elegant Ideas

at G.R. N’Namdi, through October 23

Willie Robert Middlebrook: Black Angels

at Schneider, through October 19

By Fred Camper

Most Western paintings are like windows: the painter’s supple surfaces and engaging forms lead the viewer into the picture, toward other worlds. By the time of impressionism, pictures offered views that delicately fused objects, light, and the quality of the atmosphere.

Given American collectors’–especially Chicago collectors’–interest in impressionism at the turn of the century, it comes as no surprise to see African-American artists of the time working in that mode. Of the 25 paintings and drawings in “African American Art in Chicago, 1900-1950” (there are also ten prints by unknown artists and two sculptures), two are prime examples of American impressionism: William Edouard Scott’s Southern Landscape (circa 1920), with its thin, autumnal colors stretched to near transparency, and William A. Harper’s French Landscape (circa 1905), its darker palette producing a gentle sweetness. James B. Needham’s four small turn-of-the-century impressionist paintings are representative of his obsessive interest in ships: a sailor in his teens, he later settled in Chicago, where he worked as a janitor while pursuing his art. But his boats have a certain aggressive solidity–the bows seem to press forward–that contrasts with the way impressionists often depicted objects: in Monet’s famous series of Rouen Cathedral, its surface seems to dissolve in light.

Needham anticipated later developments in African-American art. By the 30s and 40s, black artists began to look to African art for inspiration and started to differentiate their images from those in the Western tradition: the viewer through a window appreciates the qualities of light and air from a position of security and even privilege–a transcendent eye being possible mainly to those who have food, clothing, housing, and the freedom to traverse the landscape unharassed. Walter Ellison makes this point in House Rent Party (1940), a lively painting of a practice not uncommon even in the 50s: a family needing rent money would throw a party with an admission price. But the partyers are all seen here through a giant keyhole filling the middle of a door. By making the viewer a voyeur, Ellison gives the event a disturbing edge: one opens one’s home out of economic necessity, and the viewer, like the partyers, is both an invited guest and an intruder.

Another 1940 work, Hughie Lee-Smith’s Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, illustrates the transition from painting as a window to imagery that has some of the solidity of sculpture. In some ways this is a conventional portrait, but the areas of color on the subject’s skin are singularly solid, and the figure as a whole, with its almost pointed shoulders, has a striking force. In Margaret Burroughs’s Three Heads (circa 1960–despite its title, the show includes a few post-1950 pieces), the subjects’ angular noses and eyebrows and the broad swaths of color in their skin give them the look of sculpted busts. Even more striking in this regard is Charles Sebree’s Portrait (circa 1965). His schematic rendering of the head and eyes suggests tribal sculpture, while the thickly applied paint is a reminder of the materiality of painting. Irregular ridges of paint on the face resemble relief effects in the background–there’s a sense of paint as a primal substance, as if it were rock or soil. This attitude–which was certainly not uncommon in painting by the 60s–arguably entered the Western tradition when Picasso and others began to take an interest in African and other “primitive” art.

The wild mix of colors in Sebree’s Portrait of Gertrude Abercrombie (1950) recalls Redon. But here Redon’s mysticism is modified by the forcefulness of Abercrombie’s profile: her nose juts aggressively to the right, and her dark blue face is echoed by a lighter blue shadow. If Redon’s colors undercut the solidity of things, Sebree’s reinforce it. Like much of the strongest African-American art of the period, Sebree’s two paintings have an almost totemic power: they’re less images of things than evocative presences in themselves.

Today there’s no single African-American style. From Martin Puryear’s elegant wood sculptures to Glenn Ligon’s text-based pieces, black artists freely choose their modes of expression from the art world’s current eclectic mix. But the work of past artists–and some black artists today–has certain features in common: a nearly riotous use of bright and contrasting colors; an antiacademic, almost anarchic mix of forms whose feeling has been compared to the unpredictability of jazz; and a sense that the artwork is an object in itself rather than an image of something else, giving the best of such work an almost incantatory power.

Al Loving, a Detroit native who lives in New York, experimented with abstract expressionism but first came to prominence in the late 1960s as a painter of abstract squares in part influenced by Josef Albers. A bit uncomfortable with his early success, he called the established styles he was working in “colonial” and shifted direction in 1972. Inspired partly by a quilt exhibit that reminded him of his grandmother’s quilting, he began to cut up his paintings and sew the pieces into new combinations; he now calls himself a “collagist” or a “material abstractionist.”

The bulk of his 19 recent works at G.R. N’Namdi are painted on strips of rag paper, often woven together into depictions of cubes with one corner near the center thrusting toward the viewer. Generally the three faces visible around it are cut away, revealing the interior of the cube. Dreams of Amorgos is more extreme: large squares have been cut out of all six faces, so that the cube’s edges have become “beams,” as in a building frame. One sees it in this three-dimensional way but also as a flat arrangement of woven paper–part of what animates Loving’s work is the tension he creates between the illusion of depth and actual flatness, a classic modernist issue that here seems less a matter of agonized self-questioning than an almost visceral struggle.

The complex relief and color effects of the cubes’ surfaces–dense reflective areas, brush strokes that trail off, patterns in the weaving–heighten the sense of conflict. Each outside face of Dreams of Amorgos is different: one’s made up of yellow bands, another of dark red bands flecked with green, and a third of dark blue squares heavily sprinkled with bright red. In one of several pieces titled Elegant Ideas (number ten on the checklist), one face has an irregular pattern of spirals and reflective polygons that suggests both a child’s glittery collage and the night sky. One moment we see the material details of the weave, and the next we seem to pass into infinite space.

Loving colors each surface with layers of paint and gel, which creates a glossy, reflective surface that also has an inner depth, replicating on a small scale the tension between depth and flatness in the whole cube. Similarly, the woven strips of paper echo the way the rear faces of the cube, visible through the cutaway squares, at times disappear behind the front faces. The way Loving reproduces his large structures in the smaller ones gives the work a rich integrity. Yet he also disrupts the systems and symmetries he creates. The lines of his weaving seldom parallel the lines of the cube, drawing attention to the materiality of both–but if you step back, there’s the cube again, with all the depth effects of a perspective drawing.

Mixing modes removes the cubes from the realm of well-behaved symbolic expression and gives them some of the power of a live performance. It isn’t simply that the viewer needs time to balance the contradictions, as in paintings by Cezanne and later high modernists–it’s that no true resolution seems possible. Despite its modernist vocabulary, Loving’s art has some of the raw energy of an improvisational dance.

Los Angeles photographer Willie Robert Middlebrook has recently begun making highly manipulated digital prints; ten from his “Black Angel” series are now on view at Schneider along with three earlier works in which he sought to get away from photographic realism by painting directly on the print or collaging prints. And Middlebrook achieves something I’ve hardly ever seen in digital photography: the individual elements retain their autonomy–and each has some of the eventlike quality of Loving’s squares or the objectlike solidity of Burroughs’s and Sebree’s heads. The imagery in other digital photography may be complicated or surprising, but the results are often strangely flat: knowing that the computer enables the artist to do almost anything, the viewer regards the wildest juxtapositions with a yawn.

Middlebrook’s dense surfaces don’t collapse into monotony because he combines a variety of illusionistic effects; his intentional heterogeneity produces some of the conflict and contradictions of Loving’s abstractions. And for all their illusionistic games, these prints radiate conviction, also suggested by texts Middlebrook and his wife have written, available in the gallery, that describe not only the folklore of black angels but their belief in them.

Queen Mother shows Middlebrook’s mother in black and white in the center; above her, two younger figures with wings face each other, their wings also seeming to emanate from the central figure’s head. The wings are different: the ones on the left have glossy, reflective surfaces like aircraft wings, though a disembodied finger disrupts one of them a bit, while one of the wings on the right has a network of organic lines suggesting its inner structure and the other, mostly hidden, appears to be bright red. Each part of the image seems to play by its own representational rules, inhabiting its own space.

The same could be said of all ten prints. An image of Middlebrook himself is the focal point of His World; he holds a globe in front of him showing a polar view of the earth. But there are many other things to look at. It seems as if the colored patterns of a detailed map have been printed on his T-shirt and just behind him. Above him to the right a black-and-white image of a window shows a room illuminated by a bare bulb; above him to the left is a darker, churchlike window, and to the left of that, two nude silhouetted women are covered with an abstract greenish pattern that almost obscures their human form.

There’s much more in His World, which takes the eye on a journey: every new object requires an adjustment of the way one sees. Middlebrook’s shifts are true to the nearly chaotic energy and solidity of African-American art in its first exciting period: though the individual elements in his work have the realism of photography, he doesn’t seek to produce an illusionistic picture, instead returning us to art’s constituent parts, the world of objects and visions.