Aesthetics and message come together to produce a strong fusion in a pair of back-to-back exhibitions at Winston-Salem State University’s Diggs Gallery. The gallery’s front section is the site of “Truth Be Told,” a four-artist exhibition curated by gallery director Endia Beal. A partial wall separates it from a thematically related show titled “Race, Love, and Labor,” consisting of works by former artists-in-residence at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, NY.
Although independently organized, both shows engage issues of identity, representation, history and social hierarchy. The in-house exhibition “Truth Be Told” represents the Diggs’ involvement in a campaign by the For Freedoms 50 States Initiative, an artists’ platform for civic engagement, discourse and direct action.
Two of the artists in this show — William Paul Thomas and Charles Edward Williams — play variations on traditional portraiture in order to celebrate and critically examine issues involving black identity. The heads of six black men are depicted in Thomas’ relatively realistic, larger-than-life portrait paintings from a series titled “Cyanosis.” The word refers to a skin discoloration — typically bluish — that results from inadequate circulation or oxygenation of the blood.
In keeping with that idea, each of the faces in Thomas’ portraits is tinted on its upper or lower half with a bold color that contrasts with its natural, brown skin tone. This tinting strategy alludes to the subjective reactions humans tend to have toward strangers, depending on the extent to which different people resemble or physically diverge from ourselves and others like us. Because all of Thomas’ subjects are black men, these paintings evoke a range of socio-political issues including racial profiling by police and other law-enforcement authorities.
Realistic portraits of black people also make up most of Williams’ contributions to the show. Roughly life-size and more painterly than Thomas’ portraits, these tightly framed works are from two different, historically based series. Eight are from Williams’ “Colored Union Soldiers” series, depicting young men whose hats and other details of their appearance identify them as Civil War combatants. The other six are from his “Freedom Riders” series — portraits of young black women who, along with their male and female counterparts in a multiracial campaign, rode public interstate buses through the South during the early 1960s as an open challenge to racial segregation in the region.
All of these portraits are on the same scale, and their numbered sequences seem to identify them as parts of a continuum. The “Freedom Riders” are distinguished by their bold yellow grounds — presumably a chromatic allusion to the caution that these young women necessarily had to cast aside in order to participate in that literally death-defying civil rights action. Williams clearly sees all of these subjects as soldiers in an ongoing struggle for racial equality in this country.
With his striking composition “American Dream” Williams brings his project dramatically up to date in a scene evoking the Black Lives Matter movement and the campaign to remove Confederate monuments from public spots across the South. Two young black men wearing broad headbands take commanding positions on a heroically scaled statue that might represent Julius Caesar, a Caucasian Jesus or some other white authority figure whose facial features are smeared into anonymity. One of the young men wears a vigilant expression that belies his casually seated pose in front of the statue; the other sits directly on the statue’s giant head with his right hand raised in a fist and his mouth open in a defiant cry that’s almost audible.
Juan Logan takes a much more stylized, abstracted approach to the human figure in his two large paintings and a sculptural installation. His “Foundation” is a pyramid assembled from 44 identical cast-metal blocks, each stamped in relief with a stylized figure in profile on his hands and knees.
Logan’s big painting of abstracted grinning mouths with white teeth and red lips carries the enigmatic title “Dearth,” with its multiple associations including the verbal allusions to earth and death. But a dearth of what? Food and water to feed many mouths? Or a dearth of meaningful words from the multitude of mouths that seem to always be loudly talking?
Logan’s other painting, “Final Call,” conjures mystery on a deeper level. It centers on a plant with golden leaves sprouting from sinuous tendrils, and its lower section suggests a composite view of different lunar phases in a dark sky. But the dominant image is a silhouetted effigy of Eshu-Elegba, the Yoruba deity known as a divine messenger and master of spiritual power, with its ominously inscrutable cowry-shell eyes.
On the wall opposite Logan’s work are three big, lush, mixed-media paintings by Lien Truong, which manage to cohere aesthetically — and to striking effect — despite the anomalous assortment of art-historical references and visual strategies they incorporate. Her paintings sample imagery from traditional Asian art and painterly gestures from abstract expressionism, along with passages of geometric abstraction and fabric collage.
Consisting largely of still photography and related works, “Race, Love, Labor” highlights some of the same themes treated in the previously discussed exhibition.
In an untitled color photograph from her “American Book Covers” series, Xaviera Simmons parodies sentimental stereotypes of black life in the rural South. A young black woman wearing a white-patterned red dress and head scarf holds a stick-handled bundle over her shoulder and wipes her brow with her right hand as she stands among rustic buildings on a verdant hillside and looks back at the viewer.
Racial stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is the critical target of Tommy Kha’s “Little Polite (A Role Study),” whose young, male subject — perhaps the artist himself — wears a white-trimmed, black, Chinese-style uniform jacket and stylized eye makeup that lends an element of androgyny to his appearance. An accompanying wall text relates this image to the theatrical tradition of “yellowface” — white actors impersonating Asians — which originated in the late 18th century and predates the American “blackface” tradition.
At a glance the two color photos by Dawit L. Petros appear to be identical views of the same dark-hued wood-frame building exterior. A closer look at the second photo reveals a crucial difference in the form of a man’s nude, tattooed body lying supine, tightly sandwiched in the narrow space between the building and the ground. The title of this pair of images, “Support Structure As Me,” suggests that this imperiled-looking figure is Petros himself.
Gallery director Beal didn’t curate this show, but she’s represented in it by her video “9 to 5,” previously exhibited in at least one group show at another local venue. This piece samples video interviews in which professionally credentialed black women discuss their demoralizing experiences in white-dominated business environments.
Several of this show’s still photographers are represented by display copies of books devoted to their work. And one participant, Peruvian-American photographer William Cordova, contributed an installation of mostly e-photographed, black-and-white images documenting the Black Panther Party’s history in upstate New York, marked by ambitious social programs and persistent police harassment.
Other photographers represented in “Race, Love, Labor” include Isaac Diggs, Caleb Ferguson, La Toya Ruby Frazier, Gerard Gaskin, Eyakem Guliat, Alma Leyva, Gina Osterloh, Tom Potluck and Joanna Sam.