Gantt Center celebrates with 3 distinct exhibitions

Since July, in celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture has filled its galleries with three shows honoring the center’s past, present and future, as well as its bond to the community.

One show is deeply engaging; the other two are less so, but still worth viewing.

“Selected Works of J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr.” a small retrospective of work by a beloved North Carolina-born artist and educator, and “Highlights from the John and Vivian Hewitt Collection of African-American Art,” which includes pieces acquired by Bank of America and donated to the Gantt, contain work of substantial merit.

Each could benefit from more focus.

Born in Greensboro, Grigsby grew up in Charlotte and became a professor of art education at Arizona State University.

Although he was a prolific artist, his most profound impact was as an educator; his “Art & Ethnics” is a pioneering book promoting diversity in art education.

Drawn from local and family collections, this exhibition touches on Grigsby’s many influences.

But with only 30 works – completed over more than 70 years, representing numerous mediums and styles, and reflecting his interest in traditional African art and his commitment to social justice – the show is too scattered to fully reflect Grigsby’s talent as an artist.

Several beautiful prints and a fascinating collection of holiday cards make one yearn for an exhibition concentrating on Grigsby’s printmaking.

The Hewitt exhibition features 20 noted artists, including Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett and Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Installed in no particular order, the numerous paintings, prints, drawings and collages have the added challenge of being in the Gantt’s largest gallery, a big, boxy room that often overwhelms the work within it.

Here, the ones that fare best are those with bold, graphic qualities, such as Ann Tanksley’s “Canal Builders,” Jonathan Green’s “Folding Sheets,” Hale Woodruff’s “Country Church” and Ernest Crichlow’s “The Sisters.”

If your time is limited, head straight to “40 and Counting,” a selection of work from previous exhibitions at the Afro-American Cultural Center (as it was called in its pre-2009 location) and the Gantt.

Despite its variety – ranging from traditional Yoruba sculpture to contemporary social commentary – this show is tight and energetic, held together by the emotional and visual intensity of the work.

Among the numerous highlights are Tarlton Blackwell’s satirical paintings of a hog and wolf laden with military regalia, from his 1994 exhibition “Pig Tales, Hog Wash and Other Misunderstandings.”

Also noteworthy are Susan Harbage Page’s 1992 “Working Women,” black and white photos of women she worked with at a textile recycling company; quilts by Effie Cooper, Annie Dennis and Emma Russell; and Willie Little’s mixed media “A Door to American Culture.”

Some of the most remarkable work is from “Eros Negras: Encountering the Female Black Body,” a 2002 exhibition curated by former Charlotte resident and gallerist B.E. Noel. With such jarring art as Sana Musasama’s delicate but shocking ceramic and mixed-media sculptures about female genital mutilation, this exhibition exemplifies the Gantt’s role as a risk-taking institution.