No art teacher or painting mentor set a young Juan Logan down the path of a lifetime of creativity. In fact, 58 years ago art was not even offered as an elective in his Belmont high school. Logan’s first taste of creative expression came in a shop class assignment.
“My teacher, Mr. McLean, said ‘Juan, the important thing is it doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. It can just be yours.’ That changed everything for me,” he recalled, holding aloft a wooden thunderbird. Its lines are bold, wings outstretched, weighted. It was his first sculpture, and even in his 60,000-square-foot studio that is stacked almost to the rafters with art, he locates it with ease.
Logan’s newest works can be seen at SOCO Gallery in Charlotte Aug. 1-Sept. 14. The solo exhibition, titled “Long Silence,” contains a dozen paintings and works on paper from “Elegies,” his most recent body of work. They explore timeless themes of migration, freedom, interconnectedness, humanity and loss that could also be ripped from current headlines.
“Elegies are poems: solemn, sorrowful poems. They’re laments,” Logan, 71, said. “It’s like when you tell someone ‘I’ll pray for you.’ And at the moment that’s all you can do. These are poems about what we can and can’t do and how we feel as human beings recognizing what’s taking place. All they want is to take care of their families. Generally speaking, no one is coming to do harm. We may not know them, but we don’t have to, to feel who they are, to feel their pain.”
In “Elegy #11,” thick solid lines crisscross broken ones with faintly sanguineous threads of red throughout, laid over abstract geometrical shapes that the viewer slowly comes to perceive as overturned boats. Despite the many lines of family, relationships and power connecting the figures, no one, you realize, survived this journey.
“I have not crossed a body of water to seek a better land,” Logan says. “But how can we respond, what has to happen, what can I do? Being an artist places you in the position to have your say and, in so doing, place someone else in position to realize that these are issues we all should have concerns about.”
Many of the pieces in the exhibition, though abstract, pack a slow-roll punch. “Dearth” features a gaggle of mouths, a commentary on the information-noise era and lack of genuine, valuable discourse. Another, a vast aerial view made up of tiny puzzle pieces, smudges the lines of individuality.
Quincy Lee, who sits on the collections board of the Mint Museum and has several Logan pieces in his own collection, believes some knowledge of context is imperative to fully appreciating Logan’s work.
“What moves me is how he uses the imagery to tell stories that are undertold and address societal issues,” Lee said. “He picks up on pieces of history that may not have been told in a different light. Looking at his work without the context of the narrative almost does it a disservice.”
Logan is not in 100 percent agreement. He is reluctant to reveal his exact thoughts behind some works, and leaves a deliberate space for ambiguity when he writes about his work.
“When you have everything, you don’t look for anything. You don’t ask more questions or seek any answers on your own. But when you delve into it differently you find another answer, and another beyond that,” he said.
“Most of my work addresses this American culture as a whole. Who are we as a culture? The decisions made regarding policy and law impact all of us each and every day. But I’m not trying to provide anybody with answers. My goal is always been to ask questions, comment on my investigations and what I feel and how I respond to those questions.”
Logan comes from a family of makers, with his grandfather and other relatives filing patents for several inventions. Though born in Nashville, when his father died at a young age, Logan and his immediate family moved back to Belmont, his mother’s hometown, where his grandfather owned land.
Despite his shop teacher’s encouragement, when Logan went to college at Howard University he attempted to follow in the footsteps of his brother, a chemistry major who eventually became a pathologist.
“I learned quickly that was his thing, not my thing,” he quipped.
Instead, his focus on art sharpened, influenced by professors and professional artists such as Lois Mailou Jones and Floyd Coleman at Clark Atlanta University, where he transferred to study art. He served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and continued building a body of work over the ensuing decades. Logan’s works focus on abstract representations of American cultural mores and mythology, and are housed in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the New York Public Library and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
SOCO owner Chandra Johnson wrote in an email that she was “thrilled” to host this exhibition, and had presented Logan’s work at Untitled Miami Beach last December. But “we have been following Logan’s work for years and are well aware of his reputation as a master painter among other artists around the country, and the pervasive significance of his works examining the fragility of a human connectedness,” she wrote. “When I first went to the studio in Belmont, I knew without a doubt that we had to show his ‘Elegies’ series – these works are so timely and yet so universal, questioning parity among class, race, and beyond, implying that there is way more that unites than divides us.”
Logan makes no bones about pushing buttons—he wants viewers of “Elegies” to question what they are seeing, particularly as relates to migrations and the separation of families, not only in the United States but by governments around the world. Still, he limits the value of simply raising awareness.
“The idea of separating children from parents and then not being able to put them back together is so problematic, on so many levels. It’s not as if we aren’t paying attention, not as though we don’t know. We listen to the news every day, we’re informed individuals. We just choose not to see it,” he said.
The problem is not that Americans are so callous, Logan said, but that caring requires action on some level.
“Once you acknowledge something, you have to own it. You become responsible,” Logan said. “So as long as you can distance yourself from the truth, it’s easy. You walk away free! I think we’re constantly trying to find ways to acknowledge a situation without having to invest in it. You move on because it’s not about you. But it is about you if you’re a human being.”
Before creating, Logan’s process involves finding emotional distance in order not to personalize the experiences. He distrusts didactic stances. But the universality of human emotion is a point he returns to again and again.
“When I’m happy or in love, is it a different kind of happiness or love? This suggestion that we feel differently about things is just humanity. Nothing strange or curious about it. So all the things happening in the world, isn’t it enough that they’re happening to someone for you to care? Isn’t that enough?”
These are all questions which Logan may or may not have answers for. The important thing, he says, is to get you asking them.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
An opening reception will be 6-8 p.m. Aug. 1 at SOCO Gallery. The exhibition will be on view through Sept. 14.