Dialogue: John Wilson/ Joseph Norman

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through December 3.

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, September 1995)

Can visual art come unplugged and still be heard above the roar of electronic media and virtual reality? A wonderful new exhibition of works on paper and sculpture by two local African-American artists, now on view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, answers that questions with a resounding Yes.

John Wilson, now in his 70’s, is a classically trained artist with a strong African influence, whose life’s work has been a search for enduring,  spiritually charged images of African-Americans. Joseph Norman is not yet forty, but he has created a very strong body of work, combining influences from a variety of sources — Picasso, Max Beckmann, Jasper Johns — and well as things seen on his travels — the lush tropical vegetation of the rain forests in Costa Rico, the Moorish doorways and enclosed gardens in Spain. He weaves together all these strands into elaborate compositions that are elegant, yet full of feeling. If this were music, Wilson would be a great, deep solo voice, singing of Spirit.  Norman would be a jazzy instrumental with a rich melodic mix, underwoven with the blues.

The two artists have very different styles, but seen together — in concert, as it were — it’s clear that they share a mastery of their materials — paint, ink, charcoal, bronze — and a commitment to making art that is not afraid to take on the most fundamental things. Art that is neither cynical nor calculating nor “politically correct.”  Art with Soul.

“For both of these artists,” said Barry Gaither, the Director of the Boston’s Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists who organized the show and accompanying catalogue jointly with MFA curators Clifford Ackley and Shelley Langdale, “art remains an important way to think about what it means to be human and to have an inner life.”

Wilson was born in Roxbury in 1922. As a young man, he won a scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. After graduating with highests honors, he travelled to Paris, studied painting with Fernand Leger, and immersed himself, as did Picasso, in the great African collection at the Musee de L’Homme. After working with modern Mexican muralists, he returned to Boston in the 1960’s, to teach art at Boston University and forge his own true style.

Wilson’s early work was an art of protest, confronting issues of racism and injustice in moving graphic images, but he gradually began to concentrate on creating strong, beautiful images of African-Americans — images lacking from museums and textbooks of Western art. Many of his drawing show his family and friends — realistic portraits, but abstracted and idealized into icons of tremendous power and presence. This process of transformation culminated in a series of monumental bronze sculptures, including a monument to Martin Luther King at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., and Eternal Presence, a massive bronze head which was installed on the grounds of the Museum of the NCAAA in 1987.

A smaller version, still almost four feet high, of Eternal Presence stands at the entrance to this show. Cast in deep, brown bronze, touched with flecks of green, it is the head of a  young man with African features and the proud, free eyes of a dreamer or a king. The statue is surrounded by black and white drawings, which seem to gaze at the statue like a freize of guardian gods in a temple tomb.

Tutankhamun, 1336, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wilson’s sculpture truly has the presence of ancient art. By a lucky coincidence, a wonderful small Egyptian head is now visiting the MFA (in the nearby Rotunda) from New York Metropolitan Museum. It shows the boy-king Tutankhamun at the moment when he restored the traditional gods to Egypt  after a period of decadence and decline. His enormous crown sits lightly on his regal head, touched by the hand of a god. Like Wilson’s Eternal Presence, Tut’s features are neither wholly male nor female, black nor white; his eyes are ancient and timeless, dreamy and divine.

Joseph Norman, Western Carolina University

Joseph Norman grew up in the slums of Chicago, went to college on a football scholarship, and travelled extensively before settling in Providence, where he teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design. One of his first major works was a group of black and white drawings, called Strange Fruit.

Fish and fruit hang from trees, dark shapes on a dark ground. The shadowed shapes of these “strange fruit” are almost abstract, yet so emotionally charged that they recall the crucifications and martyrdoms in paintings by artists like Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or El Greco — dark icons of suffering and sacrifice. The title comes from a song by  Billie Holiday — a ballad about lynching:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood on the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fuit hanging from the poplar trees.

Patty’s Little White Lies is a devastating series of five lithographs about the emotional cost of racism — painful memories of a time in Norman’s life when he was falsely accused of a crime. The first print in the series, Shame,  shows the artist in a mug shot, splattered by ink, numbered and framed. The last print, Redemption,  shows him emerging from the ordeal a few years later, having gone through a refiner’s fire burned but not bitter, strengthened in his purpose and sense of himself.

Many of Norman’s drawings show the blighted urban landscape of his Chicago childhood — harsh, hazardous places with burned-out buildings and broken sidewalks, but with leaves pushing through the fences, and flowers growing up through the concrete. In his earliest work, these city plants are small and struggling, but gradually they grow into lavish, exuberant foliage with strong, lyrical stems and leaves.

These tropical plants are signs of life, symbols of hope and possibility, reverence and renewal. Transplanted, neglected, fenced in, and abused; yet they are somehow still thriving, and bearing glorious flowers as well as strange fruit.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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