Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Out and About with Julie: MLK Jr Day at the Corcoran Gallery of Art

The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC celebrated Martin Luther King Jr Day by opening on a Monday (when it is usually closed), so throngs of Washingtonians could enjoy free admission to three popular exhibitions:  "30 Americans" (on view until February 12, 2012), "Hank Willis Thomas:  Strange Fruit" and "Gordon Parks:  Photographs from the Collection" (last day January 16, 2012).

The entrance hall staircase had that 'Sunday at the Met' feel (if you're a New Yorker):

At the top of the staircase, visitors were greeted by Nick Cave sculptures:

"30 Americans" displays artwork by 31 artists from the fabulous art collection of the Rubells. The exhibition originated in Miami in 2008 and will travel to several more museums. The title of the exhibition omits descriptive/hyphenated references to the artists' ethnic backgrounds and matter-of-factly declares that these artists are indeed "American," cleverly refusing to qualify the use of that term. The title also obliquely refers to the fact that race is a social construct in America. 

These sculptures by Cave really caught people's eyes and looked great in the teal-blue room with paintings by Henry Taylor(l) and Jeff Sonhouse(r):

And with Barkley Hendricks' paintings:

In the next teal-blue room was an enormous Kehinde Wiley painting, of which you only see 1/4 here:

With some iona rozeal brown paintings and another Nick Cave sculpture:

and Mickalene Thomas, where a lively, even fiesty, discussion was taking place between the docent and some very engaged viewers:

Did I mention how popular it was to be at the Corcoran on January 16, 2012?

People were crowded around the monitor displaying Kalup Linzy's video:

And this wall sculpture of carpeting by Rodney McMillian:

Hank Willis Thomas was also among the artists in "30 Americans":

and at the same time had his own impressive exhibition, "Hank Willis Thomas:  Strange Fruit":

The small "Gordon Parks:  Photographs from the Collection" exhibition was full of gems. One of his most famous images portrays government cleaning woman Ella Watson in 1942:

Gordon Parks is simply an amazing human being. I saw Half Past Autumn in 2000, where he tells how he'd been a Pullman porter in the 1930s and bought a camera from a pawnshop. The 15th child of a poverty-stricken farmer from Fort Scott, Kansas, he described how he had become first, a fashion photographer, and then staff photographer at Life magazine, by having the nerve to want something different and to ask people for a chance.

The exhibition included photos of Red Jackson and his Harlem gang members, which had originally been published in Life magazine's "Harlem Gang Leader" article from 1948.

Of all the images in the Parks exhibition, I was most mesmerized by Willie Causey's Son with Gun During Racial Violence in Alabama, 1956:  

The teen-aged boy sits barefooted in a tilted-back chair, apparently in a doorway, looking down pensively at his gun. In the background are other children in clean clothes, reading on a bed in a tidy room. 

The compelling image made me research what specifically was happening in Alabama in 1956 involving the Causey family, for this young boy to be sitting with a gun, ready to protect his siblings. I found the original articles in Life Magazine with photography by Parks. The first one, dated September 24, 1956, is "The Restraints:  Open and Hidden; Both are Seen in the Study of One Negro Family," featuring the Thornton family of Choctaw County in Alabama and including images of Willie Causey, who had had only one year of school but was a relatively successful and prosperous woodcutter and farmer. His schoolteacher wife was educated and a daughter of the Thorntons. She is quoted in the article saying that integration was necessary for racial justice in America, showing how her classroom had almost no books for her black students. The comments by Mrs. Causey (and probably the images of the Causey family's success) so enraged the local white residents that they threatened the Causey family and forced them to leave, abandoning their home and relatives. Life magazine reported in "A Sequal to Segregation" on December 10, 1956 that the family had left the County. 

- Julie Chae, 1/17/2012

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