Local Arts

Why collect art? These 2 shows at the Gantt get at the point

Collector Darryl Atwell, before a Harold Mendez painting titled: “Panic dwindled into jitters into detached fascination. It was just a show. The longer I watched the less I felt. Events coupled, cavorted, and vanished, emotion hanging in mid air before my lemur eyes like a thin shred of homeless ectoplasm. It was cool. It was like drowning in syrup. (After Sally Mann).”
Collector Darryl Atwell, before a Harold Mendez painting titled: “Panic dwindled into jitters into detached fascination. It was just a show. The longer I watched the less I felt. Events coupled, cavorted, and vanished, emotion hanging in mid air before my lemur eyes like a thin shred of homeless ectoplasm. It was cool. It was like drowning in syrup. (After Sally Mann).” Courtesy of Darryl Atwell

Two current uptown shows celebrate collecting art for passion’s sake, rather than for economic advantage.

The titles of two shows now at uptown’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture – “Instill & Inspire” and “Simple Passion, Complex Vision” – tell their story. But the work shows it.

The first consists of nearly the entire 58-piece John and Vivian Hewitt Collection of African American Art, pledged to the Gantt in 1998. The Hewitts were not wealthy – Vivian Hewitt was a librarian; the late John Hewitt was a journalist and freelance writer – and their collection is dominated by prints and other works on paper.

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Collector Vivian Hewitt before some of the work in the “Instill & Inspire” exhibition: Jonathan Green’s “Folding Sheets,” and Ann Tanksley’s “Canal Builders,” both from 1989, and both in the Gantt’s permanent collection. TYRUS ORTEGA GAINES

Gantt regulars will be familiar with these works, most of which were created between the 1940s and 1980s.

Particularly affecting is a wall of portraits by artists such as Ernest Crichlow, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Ann Tanksley and Elizabeth Catlett. The remaining walls are filled with group scenes (including street scenes), interspersed with some abstraction.

Among the notable pieces here are Romare Bearden’s etching/aquatint “Jamming at the Savoy”; “Twins of Morning,” a lithograph by John T. Biggers; “African Journey: The Bridge” by J. Eugene Grigsby, “Harlem Games,” a color woodcut by Virginia Evans Smit; and “Playing Records,” a drawing by Jacob Lawrence. (Puzzlingly, the wall labels are short on basic information, which will frustrate viewers who cannot, for example, identify a specific print medium just by looking at a work.)

The second exhibition offers some of the impressive contemporary art collection amassed in just 10 years by Darryl Atwell of Washington, D.C.

Several artists featured in “Simple Passion, Complex Vision,” including Wangechi Mutu, Leonardo Drew, Mickalene Thomas and Theaster Gates, are well-known. Some are just a few years out of grad school.

This exhibition spills across two galleries. The tone in each is different, although the work of several artists shows up in both spaces.

The works in the West Gallery tend toward abstraction and the conceptual; the mood is hushed, but powerful.

There are numerous references to buildings and structures, some of which could be welcoming, others hostile. These include Serge Alain Nitegeka’s “Exterior I, Studio Study,” Jefferson Pinder’s “Ghetto,” Rushern Baker IV’s “Monolith”and Theaster Gates’ “Stand-Ins for a Period of Wreckage 8.”

Leonardo Drew’s pieces, in both galleries, appear to be created from found objects, but instead are made of new materials that he weathers or otherwise ages. “Number 51,” made mostly of oxidized metal, is a gritty and beautiful work in which arduousness and the passage of time are profoundly evident.

Blocking access to knowledge is a theme that emerges in several pieces. In her chalkboard work “Unrelated,” Bethany Collins has written and then partially erased people’s names. All have the last name of Collins, followed by the inscription “(unrelated).” They are further obscured by a welter of letters. In Samuel Levi Jones’ “Disposing Histories” and “Efface,” the bindings of reference books are splayed flat across canvases, their pages torn out and information obliterated.

The East Gallery portion of the show, subtitled “Human Nature and the Nature of Humans,” is explicitly on message.

Turiya Magadlela’s “iMaid ka Lova 2” and “I never made Swan Lake 9” read like feminist incursions into the male-dominated art world. Made from squares of pantyhose stretched on canvas, they resemble vivid abstract paintings.

There are several stark, confrontational photographic self-portraits. In “One day and back then (standing),” Xaviera Simmons, in blackface and black clothing, stands in a field. For “Till,” Demetrius Oliver smeared his head with chocolate to represent violence against a young black male body.

Celebrated installation artist and urbanist Theaster Gates is represented by several works that take common items from the urban environment and present them as stately art objects, with underlying political and social commentary. Among these is “In the Event of Race Riot XIII,” a fire hose framed with salvaged wood and metal.

In building this collection, Atwell has met necessity with ingenuity. Because he couldn’t afford the work of established artists, he began by collecting younger and unknown artists.

Atwell is also a proponent of shared ownership. In particular, he has purchased a number of works with Memphis resident and former NBA player Elliott Perry. In a recent phone conversation, Atwell acknowledged that there are issues, including legal ones, that have to be considered for shared ownership to succeed – but he enthusiastically recommends it as a way to acquire art that otherwise would be out of reach.

At the Gantt

“Simple Passion, Complex Vision: The Darryl Atwell Collection of African-American Art” and “Instill & Inspire: Selections from the John and Vivian Hewitt Collection of African American Art” are on view through through Jan. 22 at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture uptown; ganttcenter.org; 704-547-3700.

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