at the Terra Museum

of American Art, through January 9

What is most surprising about the art of Lois Mailou Jones, an 88-year-old African American whose seven decades of work are surveyed in a show at the Terra Museum of American Art, is how many different styles she worked in. From early decorative images to academic realism to neo-impressionism to pieces influenced by Haitian and African art–the work is so various that a casual observer might wonder whether it’s all by the same person. But for me it’s the African-influenced work of the last two decades that’s the most original and moving.

Compare the 1938 Les Pommes Vertes, painted while Jones was a student at the Academie Julian in Paris, with the 1980 Grossesse, Haiti. The earlier picture is a still life of some green apples in a basket, painted in the manner of Cezanne–by the 30s, French impressionism and postimpressionism, daring in their day, had become academic styles. Cezanne frequently divided his images into seemingly roughly applied splotches of color; a Cezanne apple might be contructed out of several such splotches. The result is an image the viewer has to struggle to unify, and that perceptual process ultimately calls into question human perception and knowledge. Though Jones uses paint similarly in Les Pommes Vertes, the result is a delicate image, pleasing to look at, whose parts seem only to reinforce one another: the whole is too easily unified. This kind of image, common in student work, imitates the manner of a master without the meaning.

One could hardly have predicted that such minor if accomplished work would lead to an image as stunningly dissonant as Grossesse, Haiti. Jones has abandoned the pale oils of her French work for bright acrylics, and here combines disparate elements in the manner of a collage. At the center are three women in bright dresses and headdresses. Their faces are flat, with little detail. To the right are children’s faces, mottled in texture and highly modeled; each wears a different expression, suggesting a different emotion. Below the children is a black and gray altarlike statue dressed with colored beads, with a strange green light behind. Much of the rest of the canvas is filled with a variety of abstract colored patterns–including a checkerboard and some repeating curved forms.

What struck me at first was how audaciously this painting mixed different representational styles. The green light behind the idol is irregular and diffuse, the opposite of the more “tamed” geometrical color patterns. The women’s faces are masklike, while the children’s heads are so realistic as to leap off the canvas. Yet after a while this image seems strangely, almost inexplicably unified–the iconlike statue, the children, the women, and the patterns seem to have achieved some prerational form of communion.

Born in 1905 in Boston, Jones attended art classes while still in high school, eventually graduating from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. Her mother, a beautician and hatmaker, helped instill in her a love of beauty (a 1943 painting in this show is called My Mother’s Hats). Soon Jones was selling her textile designs to companies that manufactured fabrics–but designers’ names were never published with their work. In an interview with curator Tritobia H. Benjamin, Jones said: “I wanted my name to go down in history. For this to happen, I realized that I would have to become a painter.”

This change in direction was not immediately auspicious for Jones’s art. The densely patterned, brightly colored textile designs and watercolors are to my eye far more interesting than such academic work as Les Pommes Vertes. In the 1928 cretonne design Grogette, two bright red flowers seem to leap out from amid a darker skein of flowers and leaves. In the watercolor Totem Poles (1928) over 100 totem poles, each bearing a different design, are clustered together with abstract green and black forms, evidencing an early interest in non-Western art.

After she joined the art faculty of Howard University in 1930, it was only natural that Jones should spend her first sabbatical in Europe: a black woman artist of the time would have been encouraged to pursue European traditions. Not long after her return from France in 1938, Benjamin relates in her catalog essay, Jones “met Alain Locke . . . poet-laureate of the New Negro Movement. . . . He strongly encouraged her to re-evaluate her subjects and take her own heritage more seriously.” The artist later called the 1940s her “Locke period”: she produced works like Meditation (Mob Victim) (1944), a haunting portrait of a black man about to be lynched. That same year she painted Two Faiths, a more schematic version of her later divided images: at the left is an African statue, at the right a classical bust. The bust is cool, blank, unassertive; most of the background is a placid blue drape. The stylized African figure, whose eyebrows continue downward to form his nose, seems to thrust out of the image; the background is colorfully striped African fabric. Though not as radically various as Grossesse, Haiti, this picture re-creates two very different kinds of perception, one calm and balanced and the other bursting with energy.

In 1954 Jones traveled to Haiti for the first time–she had just married a Haitian artist–and in 1969, to Africa. Haitian and African influences are increasingly apparent in her work from the 1950s and ’60s, but it was only after 1969 that her work gained full originality and power. It should be noted that Jones would likely disagree, however: she felt that her first trip to Paris in the late 30s had freed her “to create and be myself,” and as late as 1989 she returned to France to paint. This show concludes with several works from that 1989 trip, and they are subtly different from her earlier French work. She paints La Route a Speracedes, a landscape, to emphasize differences: the solid red roofs seem to glow, while light-filled leaves in the foreground are delicate, translucent.

But Dahomey (1971) has the kind of power that goes beyond immediate visual pleasure. Heavy black diagonal lines divide a vertical composition into three principal areas, each containing one or more fantastic animals set against a solid red or tan background. Bright geometric patterns, some recalling the patterns on African masks, cover the animals’ bodies; their eyes are rendered not in paint but with pieces of gold foil.

In the Western tradition paint is used to create an illusion of something else; Jones’s French paintings follow that tradition. But the art of many non-Western cultures is meant to function more directly–in rituals, to invoke spirits. Sometimes objects represent themselves–a bone is a bone. There’s a more direct, less cerebral connection between such works and physical reality. The gold foil in Dahomey functions similarly–the animals are painted, but the eyes are “real,” which gives the creatures a certain power.

After noting the creatures’ wonderfully weird and assertive shapes and the gold-foil eyes, one likely turns to the painted patterns. The bright jagged and wavy lines and multicolored concentric circles seem more than mere decoration: shaped to the animals’ bodies, they’re a bit like hieroglyphs. They, and the beasts too, seem secret symbols from some unknown religion.

Symbols d’Afrique II (1983) offers an even denser, almost ecstatic combination of abstract and representational imagery. Three women’s heads and torsos fill a narrow central strip; the solid colors of their clothing and the background create an abstract design in which their carefully detailed faces are nestled. The two sides are filled with many different bold shapes; one is roosterlike, but none of the others are easily identifiable. As with Grossesse, Haiti, at first these forms seem very different from one another. But as the jagged and wavy lines lead the eye about the image, the representational faces particularly attracting one’s attention, the image becomes oddly unified. The repeated primary colors help, as does the rhythm of the shapes and lines, which recalls Stuart Davis. But the work also produces an effect I can’t account for rationally–a sense that the shapes are as much invocations of reality as the women’s faces, that they aren’t just abstract language-like symbols but direct presentations of forces, spirits, unseen beings.

Many of Jones’s African-inspired works suggest a unity to things not apparent from their appearances, a unity deeper than their visual forms. Humans, animals, and abstract shapes all seem manifestations of an unseen world. This is perhaps clearest in Maiden of Surinam (1983). A painted brown circle at the center is like a wooden frame around the realistically painted head of a woman with an elaborate African hairstyle. Also within the frame, on either side of her, are two flat, black silhouettes of similar women, while hanging below her is a bright, irregularly patterned painting of geometric African fabric. At first nothing seems to go together; each part seems to come from a different representational system. But the brown circle can’t be just a frame, because arcs that resemble it are repeated above it. And eventually the contrasting colors seem to echo each other in their bright, solid evenness, as if each were a special case of the black silhouettes. Then suddenly the painting seems to call on an inner vision, one that can see behind this powerful collision of forms a strange communion between spirits.