at Black Art Group International, through June 25

In James Denmark’s collages, currently on view with his woodcuts, serigraphs, and lithographs at Black Art Group International, one or more African American figures at the center are surrounded by a wild multitude of colors and shapes. In Objects of Affection, a woman seen in profile is immersed in a labyrinth of forms and materials–pieces of fabric, photographs of pieces of fabric, cutout colored paper, patches of paint in variegated colors, a photo of an ornate antique vase, colored paper cut in the shapes of flowers. At first one feels confused, almost to the point of sensory overload, by this brightly colored diversity; but soon connections become apparent. Flowers are a motif–on the vase, on a Japanese screen above it, on the woman’s blouse. Contrast is an organizing principle: black or dark blue with areas of brighter color, or geometric patterns with more free-flowing colors and lines. Each change the eye encounters is a surprise; the effect is of a series of tiny explosions.

Objects of Affection represents one extreme of Denmark’s art, including as many different forms as possible, jamming them against each other. In this piece he pushes that idea so far that the work hovers on the brink of chaos. But in most of the other collages, audacious contrasts are balanced by an almost classical sense of order. The background in the collage Boy With Red Pants suggests a grid, with a row of rectangles at the top; even the boy’s outline has as many nearly straight edges as it does curves. His pants are a splotchy, streaky pattern of red and white that echoes without exactly duplicating adjacent patches of mottled color. Just behind his pants is an irregular blue and white field that might be a dimly rephotographed mountain landscape.

The audacity of this juxtaposition, in which a tiny part of the world–a pair of pants–seems to suggest a vast landscape, is characteristic of Denmark’s work. By juxtaposing elements according to similarities and contrasts in their shapes and colors, he calls attention to the sensual beauty of each form. The freedom with which he combines these elements left me open to seeing the sensual qualities of all the things around me–from the dirtiest building wall to the purest blue sky.

The mixture of freedom and order in Denmark’s work may stem in part from his African American upbringing and academic training: the improvisational side of his art is balanced by an almost architectural substructure. He was born in Winter Haven, Florida, in 1936. His grandmother was a wire sculptor and quilt artist, his grandfather a bricklayer noted for his custom designs. His mother made quilts, wire sculptures, clothing, and paper flowers; Denmark recalls that his artistic aspirations were reinforced by seeing the things she could do with her hands. His own art began in grade school with drawings of local scenery–“fish, birds, palm trees,” he says.

Denmark’s high school was all-black by law–this was the Jim Crow south–and had no art teacher, but the principal recognized Denmark’s interest and made him the head of the school’s art club: “We learned from each other, taught each other.” The college he attended, the also-segregated Florida A. & M. University, had a large and accomplished art faculty. Some of the teachers had advanced degrees from northern schools but were unable to get the jobs they were trained for there and returned south to teach. Denmark particularly recalls two professors: Howard Lewis, an auto designer who made him demand more of himself, and Dr. Samella Lewis, who helped introduce him to African and African American art. The gradual loosening of Jim Crow after 1954 made Denmark feel more comfortable seeing exhibits of European art at white schools–he once drove from Tallahassee to Miami to see a Modigliani exhibit, for example.

This son and grandson of quilt and clothing makers also reveals the greatest respect for fabric and clothing design. In many of the collages, the “clothing” that covers the figures is also the area of densest collage making, as if Denmark were giving fabric design the same value as the “fine art” of collage. The two figures in Silent Love Song are covered in a variety of patterns–solid colors, white paper with irregular fuzzy purple lines, magazine photos of clothes. Some of the clothes in the photos are rumpled, creating an odd illusion of depth. Printed geometrical patterns repeat in rows, as on wallpaper–the formal opposite of the purple lines. Denmark opens up collage making to the free play of an inclusive imagination: any form or pattern is possible, all are equally legitimate.

In the lithograph Brothers and Sisters, by contrast, the patterns are far fewer. Most of the figures’ garments use only two or three; and each wears a hat that matches one of the patterns in the blouse. Not only is each figure more unified, but when one steps back the whole composition gives the impression of a unified collage. The patterns here fall into two types–soft, diffuse, irregularly arranged blotches, and harder-edged shapes. The examples of each type all seem like variations on the same theme; indeed, each flows out of the others almost musically. (Denmark counts jazz as a major influence.) He says of his working method: “I rely on improvisation. . . there are no rules; I leave everything open.” But he also seeks unity–“What I’m trying to do is get a marriage between what is painted and what is pasted”–and in Brothers and Sisters the melding of diverse patterns into a composed, balanced, and unified image also expresses the unity of a people.

Most of the faces in Denmark’s work include some detail, if only a few lines to suggest an expression. Often patterns in the face are linked to the background: the vertical brush strokes on the boy’s face in Junebug seem akin to the streaked purple background to the right of his head. But a few of the faces are devoid of detail; often formed of cutout black paper, they stand at the center like powerful voids. Such faces make for some of Denmark’s strangest and strongest work.

The woman in Sadakisha, seen in profile, has a dark purple eye and eyelid; the rest of her face and her arms and feet are solid black. She is surrounded by particularly sensuous colors: a large field of blue and red splotches, a collage made in part of pieces of flower pictures arranged in the shape of a flower vase, fields of red and yellow. Her skin is differentiated from the rest by the complete absence of light, but that absence only serves to call one’s attention to the black more strongly, and what at first seems a negative space soon becomes a positive one. The raucously varied elements around it make the dark skin the surest thing in the picture: weighty, independent, free.