“About Body | About Face” at AAWR Examines How African American Bodies Are Portrayed in Art

'Shared Daydream' by LeSandra Robinson
Artists Archives of the Western Reserve (AAWR) Gallery is now hosting “About Body | About Face,” a small-group, figurative exhibition that examines representation of African American bodies in art and culture. The show is free and open to the public at the AAWR Gallery, which is taking all necessary precautions against the spread of Covid, through January 16.

“About Body | About Face” is a follow-up to the “seenUNseen” exhibition, which took place in 2019 with the help from AAWR. The second round is an opportunity for some of the artists who were featured in that collection to more fully exemplify their work.

Curator, artist and Executive Director of AAWR Mindy Tousley writes in the curator’s statement for “About Body | About Face” that, “I purposefully included a range of styles and materials, not just a show of paintings or photography. From my point of view as an artist and curator, I am more interested in artwork or exhibitions that push the limits of expression, while still maintaining balance, so including work made in a variety of materials made sense.”

When I walked into “About Body | About Face,” I was immediately enamored with how concise and yet rich with content the show is. From the surreal and somewhat eerie photography of Yvonne Palkowitsh to the delightful paintings of LaSandra Robinson to the representative yet somewhat obscurely rendered self-portraits by Davon Brantley, the gallery represents the work magnificently.

Brantley, in his self-portraits, reaches to address dissociative behavior which can be a result of childhood trauma. His artist’s statement notes, “Brantley’s work is about the subversion of dark fantasies and tragedies are a result of living in this world, in a way that consecrates rather than demonizes. He references Renaissance and Baroque portraiture and religious paintings, two era of art that are almost exclusively lacking in depictions of people of color.”

In Brantley’s “ON SIGHT, 2020” piece (charcoal, pastel, sepia paper), we see what appears to be the artist, nude with the exception of opulent textile wrapped around his waist. The depiction is realistic yet stylized how the knee protrudes out towards the viewer the way Caravaggio’s unconventional style, for the time, extends the action of his composition beyond the picture.

The most perplexing element of Brantley’s piece is the silhouette of the subject’s head enclosed by a red circle resembling a nimbus, much like one might find in a renaissance religious work. The fact that the face is colorless and featureless makes one wonder if this is commentary on his search for identity.

Divergently we have the work of LaSandra Robinson, who paints females portraits and states, “My more recent abstract portraits are about the strength and beauty of Black women, letting their inner light come through.” Robinson’s style is characteristic and reminds me of Bisa Butler’s pallet, yet with pigment rather than cloth.

Her whole series is strong, especially the centerpiece — a portrait of two woman in revealing dress and matching pearl earrings entitled, “Shared Daydream (Detail).” Beyond the warm browns ranging from coffee to peanut, Robinson allows the lighter portions of the portraits to radiate with a spectrum of fantastic color as if someone shined a light thorough the subjects’ souls to reveal the refracted color of their human condition.

The pastels which peek out from under the flesh tones bring warmth and vitality to the images while the expressions of the subjects’ faces remain demure and confident, the elongated features presenting elegance and femininity. (At $700 for this 48” x 36” work, I’d be surprised if this, along with many other pieces in this exhibition, didn’t sell expeditiously.)

“I would hope that people gain a better understanding of what it is like to be an African American artist,” said Tousely about the show, “or simply an African American in our society today, as well as an appreciation for the richness that these artists in particular and African American Artists in general add to our culture. They need to be seen more and appreciated.”

Many Clevelanders might not be aware of AAWR, the archival facility and regional museum created to preserve representative bodies of work by Ohio visual artists, but this facility shares the site, off of Euclid Ave. just east of MOCA, with Cleveland’s The Sculpture Center. Both facilities were made possible by Bernice and David E. Davis, who founded The Sculpture Center in 1989.

David E. Davies was a prominent Cleveland sculpture and arts advocate who died in November of 2002 at the age of 82. He founded AAWR in 1996 with promise of nurturing regional artists. “About Body | About Face” is just another example of how Davis’ mission continues to offer artists a place to develop.

An amenity that many people also might not be aware of is The Sculpture Center’s quaint sculpture garden, which is open to the public and it a lovely little place to have lunch, read a book or take in the ‘high modernist’ Davis sculptures lining the courtyard.

Accompanying the exhibition are a series of virtual Artist Talks which are achieved on the site and the second of which will take place Wednesday, December 9th from 7:00 – 8:15 p.m. featuring artists, Lawrence Baker, Amanda D. King, and Tony Williams.
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