Critics’ Picks

Ira Watkins, Buck Manning, 1998, oil on panel, 48 x 48".

Ira Watkins, Buck Manning, 1998, oil on panel, 48 x 48".

Mill Valley

Ira Watkins

George Lawson Gallery
18 E. Blithedale Ave. #12
November 20–December 22, 2019

With images drawn alternately from memory and imagination, self-taught artist Ira Watkins has been telling stories about the lives and histories of African Americans for more than four decades. Watkins spent the first sixteen years of his life in Waco, Texas before heading to the Bay Area in 1957. (He was among the six million African Americans who moved to the North or West during the Great Migration to escape poverty and racial oppression in the South.) There, he initially shot billiards for a living. In the ’70s, he began painting, creating intimately scaled pieces that describe community life—men working in the shipyards, people socializing on porches, card players enjoying themselves in pool halls, and serious-faced children sitting at home. Some images address spirituality with an affectionate directness: A Nativity scene features a black family, bathed in a supernatural white light, surrounded by a host of onlookers—including an ostrich and a ram.

Other pictures remind viewers of the larger, darker histories to which Watkins’s work responds. Who Will Be the Next Champ?, 1997–98, for example, seems to criticize the sport of boxing for pitting black men against each other to profit white promoters. And in Buck Manning, 1998, several horrific episodes depicting the lives of enslaved people on a Texas plantation—a hanging, a man in stocks, a line of figures chained together at their necks—occupy the middle register of a painting skillfully composed of interrelated scenes. Buck Manning, born enslaved, became a distinguished leader of a small community in Texas after emancipation. Here, as elsewhere, Watkins both celebrates and commemorates.