PRINT January/February 2021

Image Conscious

Aaron Hicks, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, 2000, lacquer and acrylic on canvas, 30 × 36".

I WAS RAISED BY MY GRANDMOTHER in the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project on Chicago’s South Side, but frequently stayed at the home of my aunt Rosemary Jarrett, my grandmother’s oldest daughter. When my adoption was finalized, my birth certificate and other documents indelibly amended, my aunt became, legally, my sister, a novel relation that would be indispensable, steadying. 

My aunt had back then a marvelously filthy mouth, supplemented by a full and ribald laugh. She inherited from her mother a talent for entertaining, as well as an exuberant, maximalist approach to the adornment of self and home. These impulses converged in the art parties she hosted when I was younger.

She lived then on Fifty-First Street in Washington Park, neighboring soigné Hyde Park, where an indoor sunporch housed her lush well-tended plant life, testament to her unassailable green thumb. Ahead of the gatherings, hosted in the nicer living room, a flurry of preparations: The rough carpets were shampooed, the massive entertainment center polished, the pesky children tucked away. As a girl, I was enraptured by these affairs, finding the women who attended as comely and artful as the paintings on display. How lively they seemed when they weren’t cooking, fussing, worrying, tending to their homes, children, and men, or hemmed in by the strictures of the church. They laughed and milled about my aunt’s apartment, acquiring together and for themselves things they thought were beautiful.

Mobassi, The Lord’s Blessing, ca. 1980s–90s, oil and glitter on canvas, approx. 15 × 18".

She hosted the fetes, she tells me, not just as an admirer of art, but as a proprietor. She began working for Artistic Impressions, a direct-sales art firm founded by former encyclopedia salesman Bart Breighner, in the late 1990s. “My cousin worked for Artistic Impressions,” she says. “I saw a painting she had and liked it, so that’s how I got started.” The painting, titled The Lord’s Blessing, is a textured oil-on-canvas by the American artist Mobassi. A mother and infant appear in profile, both a deep, sumptuous brown, their features faintly drawn. The pair are conjoined by a crescent of glitter, gold, and cream paint, the maternal bond made tactile and flashily literal. The first piece of art my aunt ever purchased for herself, Mobassi’s canvas hangs in her living room still. The piece embodies Artistic Impressions’ predominant aesthetic, a style that came to be known as the Black Romantic: representational, mixed media, superlative in its sentimentalism and in an unambiguous race pride owed to a glamorized, monarchical African past. It sits in a universe alongside the quaint, overbright cottage vistas of Thomas Kinkade, Romare Bearden’s ennobling photomontages of American Negro subjecthood, and Albrecht Dürer’s gouache-and-watercolor Praying Hands, cartes de visite circulating like proto-memes.

Established in 1985 in Lombard, Illinois, Artistic Impressions was among the slew of home-art distributors that proliferated in the late twentieth century. Personal Preference, Inc., founded in 1979 by former secretary Jan Madori Ferrin in nearby Bolingbrook, was another. Utilizing a direct-sales model, the companies hired independent contractors to host at-home sales events, or “demonstrations.” Paid on commission, the contractors would present their respective portfolios—arrays of silk screens, oil paintings, serigraphs, lithographs, and statuary by various contemporary artists, typically priced between $69 and $250. Interested parties could also order via catalogue. My aunt recalls that women constituted the majority of her clientele. “Because that’s who makes the decorating decisions in a household,” she says. “There’d be men who came, but rarely. They would just come by and eat.” Similar to Avon, Mary Kay, and Tupperware—all of which mastered the home-party sales method—these enterprises were powered by the social and domestic lives of women. Employment was posited as an alternative to the pugnacious, masculinized ambition of corporate America, providing women with income, a sense of entrepreneurial independence, and the opportunity for some hennish socializing amid the tedium of domesticity.

Personal Preference, Inc. advertisement page details from Ebony, August 2000.

Reliant on personal networks, incentivized recruitment, and hustle, direct sales was also the rare industry in which black employees routinely outearned their white counterparts. In 1993, the magazine Black Enterprise estimated that 50 percent of Artistic Impressions’ workforce was black (compared to 11 percent at Avon and 10 percent at Mary Kay) and earned a median of eighty-two dollars per week (compared to white sellers’ fifty). But the abiding allure of multilevel marketing isn’t its statistical averages, which are frequently on par with those of most entry-level or minimum-wage employment opportunities, but its potential earnings, which are, in theory, as boundless as the seller’s imagination. Black publications ran recruitment ads spotlighting high-earning black consultants espousing the financial and personal rewards of pseudo self-employment. Linette Wiliams, who had made more than $100,000 with Personal Preference and received a “free Jaguar” in return. Mary Jo and Bob Blair also earned six figures and had a “free Jaguar in the driveway,” courtesy of the company. In 1996, Personal Preference netted $17 million in revenue, per Madori Ferrin, and was selling two hundred thousand paintings a year. According to a report in Chicago Business, the company’s projected revenue in 1994 was $20 million. For the black artists they commissioned, who were largely excluded from the more rarefied strata of the mainstream art world, the direct-sales art companies offered an alternative avenue to financial viability and popular acclaim. 

Among those artists were Aaron and Alan Hicks, known collectively as Twin Hicks, identical twin brothers and painters from Chicago. Raised by an avowedly Christian mother, the twins began drawing at age eight—Aaron with his right hand, Alan with his left. Typical of children from working-class families, the twins prioritized college and sensible careers, graduating from the University of Illinois with degrees in biocommunications and medical illustration. One early painting portrayed the biblical figure Daniel, black and stationed with saintly aplomb amid a den of subdued lions. “These were positive black images, almost like a form of black consciousness raising or protest, is how we saw it,” Aaron tells me. “We didn’t expect them to be popular or widely embraced.”

Aaron Hicks, Samson, 2002, lacquer and acrylic on canvas, 36 × 30".

Their oeuvre comprises two categories, into which the bulk of Black Romantic art can also be slotted: “Home and Family Life” and “Religious and Spiritual Paintings.” The former is all nuclear bliss and filial piety—Mommy and Daddy dole out kisses and baths and lead the children in bedtime prayers. Little black girls come draped in the oversize uniforms of secretaries and teachers, the boys outfitted as preachers, lawyers, and athletes, all smiling a bit too wide and glowing the same glazed-honey-bun brown. The aforementioned Daniel belongs to the latter grouping, alongside other familiar biblical tableaux, the figures all recast as black and rendered with expressive detail. Christ, pressed hair agleam beneath the halo, shepherds his flock through thick Edenic brush. A personal favorite is Visitation, 1998, in which a white-robed girl gazes heavenward, the sky behind her a froth of crepuscular blues, greens, and plums. Her exposed neck imparts a devilish stroke of carnality welcome amid the otherwise pious scene. Likewise her glossed lips, which, along with her wispy bangs, situate her firmly in modernity, a Madonna-cum–round-the-way girl. Before her are lilies of all varieties and in all stages of bloom, their sharp, distinct oil lines contrasting with the gauzy, airbrushed sky. Smaller, yellow buds blossom throughout, a tonal invocation of the orisha Oshun, lover of honey, sensuality, and mayhem. The infusion of paganism and possibly Yoruba symbolism unyokes the portrait from its stodgy biblical origins and releases it into more rousing territory. Are we witnessing a visitation or a conjuring? Is hers the white robe of the Pentecost or the Priestess?

Aaron Hicks, Visitation, 1998, lacquer and acrylic on canvas, 36 × 30".

Are we witnessing a visitation or a conjuring? Is hers the white robe of the Pentecost or the Priestess?

THE SYNCRETISM OF COLONIAL RELIGIONS and Afro-Indigenous spiritualities pervades the Atlantic world, springing up everywhere the enslaved and dispossessed sought to reconcile the gods of the old world with the new. Candomblé and Santería in Brazil and Latin America. Vodou in Haiti and New Orleans. In North America, black liberation theology effloresced alongside the black movements of the ’60s and ’70s, seeking, as James H. Cone proposed, “to transform the self-loathing Negro Christians into black-loving revolutionary disciples of the Black Christ.” Influenced by the teachings of the Nation of Islam, this insurrectionary black gospel claimed Jesus as an enslaved man and sachem of the poor, with Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Malcolm X among his mutinous anticapitalist progeny. Liberation was posited as a spiritual imperative and “blackness as the primary mode of God’s presence.”

Alan Hicks, Good Shepherd, 2003, lacquer and acrylic on canvas, 30 × 40".

Iconic images of Brother Christ abounded. In 1968, brothers Santiago and Jesus Rivas presented to Philadelphia’s Church of the Gesu their wooden tableau Christ of North Philadelphia, featuring the black king of kings crucified on a telephone pole. Below, his ghetto-dwelling kin suffer similar fates. A knife-wielding Cain stands stiff with fratricidal intent. In back, a squad car, blaring the ineludible barbarity of the state. The same year, DeVon Cunningham debuted his fresco of a black messiah, painted onto the apse of Saint Cecilia Catholic Church in Detroit. Christ and six multiethnic lady angels stand among the skies, poufs of clouds encircling images of worldly greats—Gandhi, Malcolm X, the Kennedy brothers, and Pope John XXIII. The image appears on the March 1969 cover of Ebony, an issue exploring the quest to “dehonkify” the savior. In 1974, the first season of Norman Lear’s CBS series Good Times interpreted the leitmotif in the episode “Black Jesus,” featuring a painting of Christ inspired by the palette and style of North Carolinian artist Ernie Barnes, whose own canvas The Sugar Shack, 1976, appears in the show’s closing credits.

Santiago and Jesus Rivas (designed by Reverend Ralph C. Campbell, S.J.), Christ of North Philadelphia, 1968, paint on wood. Installation view, Church of the Gesu, Philadelphia, 2017. Photo: Melissa Kelly/St. Joseph’s Prep.

Neo-Mannerist in mien, Barnes’s work is characterized by elongated lines and exaggerated forms—arising, perhaps, from the distinct bodily awareness born of his time as a football player—that impart movement, rhythm, and tension. Inside the balmy, spotlighted cavern of The Sugar Shack, even the banners draped from overhead rafters refuse inertia, while Barnes’s lubricious black collective seems to writhe as a single, many-limbed entity. His mode of kinetic figuration, animating black existence with just enough versimilitude, influenced a generation of black portraitists; meanwhile, The Sugar Shack itself became a staple in black homes, its popularity embodying an act of communal creative expression on par with the painting’s exultant scene.

Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 36 × 48".  © Ernie Barnes Family Trust.

The cultural nationalism of the ’70s, alongside the influence of figures like Barnes, undergirds the political aims of Black Romantic art, while later decades saw the development of market conditions that made its success feasible. The twins signed with Artistic Impressions in 1996, at the zenith of what can be referred to as the “Cosby Watershed.”

From 1987 to 1992, Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable and their quintet of spirited—though never randy or delinquent—children were beamed into the living rooms of millions of Americans, asserting the moral fortitude of the black professional classes. Showcasing the cultural eminence of the striving set via the Huxtable family’s aesthetics was pivotal to the sitcom of manners. Thanks to consulting from the black-art scholar and historian David Driskell, The Cosby Show and its spin-offs regularly featured works by Varnette Honeywood, Brenda Joysmith, Ellis Wilson, and other unsung black artists. In season two, Clair purchases Funeral Procession, ca. 1954, a painting by Wilson, a Harlem Renaissance artist, for $11,000 at auction. It remains mounted in the family’s foyer for the rest of the show’s run. The exposure renewed interest in Wilson and inspired countless replicas, some of which were sold by Artistic Impressions, and one of which my aunt owns. Whereas American museums and cultural institutions maintained inimical relations with black people—eliding black subjects within the art-historical canon and failing to engage black working-class patrons—network television again provided an accessible mass arts education. Broadcast in 1986, the episode also serves as a gusty exhortation of black-middle-class ideals of conspicuous consumption, a matter further analyzed by scholar and sociologist Patricia A. Banks in her 2009 essay “Black Cultural Advancement.” For this socioeconomic cohort, patronage of black visual art was both an assertion of black identity and an embodied act of racial uplift, aiding “the collective project of black cultural advancement.”

For black and working-class or poor consumers, the nearest available proxy for Clair Huxtable’s Ellis Wilson original was a reproduction, produced en masse and purchased for what you could afford. Unlikely to own a home, or marry a doctor, or birth children whose safety, freedom, or upward mobility could be ensured, one instead sought out photo images of such things, not to mimic the black upper crust but as a form of dreamwork, the print or facsimile serving as both decor and totem. In “Cottage for Sale” (2010), A.S. Hamrah describes the mad dash for Kinkade’s psychotically idealized cottages among white inhabitants of the artist’s native California, even as wildfires and the housing crisis rage unbated: “It’s a vast fictional panorama that uses items from reality to gauze up a location of idealized American spectacle that never was and won’t ever be.”

Whereas American museums and cultural institutions maintained inimical relations with black people, network television again provided an accessible mass arts education.

AT ARTISTIC IMPRESSIONS, artists discovered a black consumership hungry for their work and a lucrative high-volume, low-cost production model. The painter Annie Lee, featured on several Cosby productions as well as in films such as Boomerang (1992), signed first with the company Color Your World and later with Artistic Impressions. Lee’s style of Black Americana is typified by the near-ubiquitous Blue Monday, ca. 1980, a self-portrait completed during her tenure as a clerk at Northwestern Railroad Company. A woman—dog tired, head downturned—steadies herself at the edge of her bed, ensconced in deep, whirling blues that threaten to consume. “I’d come in from work and I’d get in maybe about 5:30 from the railroad and I’d start painting at maybe 6:00. And I’d paint ’til 3:00 in the morning every day, all day,” Lee said in an interview. She would paint until her hands burned with tendinitis, and then continue with the cast still in place. The companies would license an original image and the artists would produce duplicates, earning a small commission per work sold, plus residuals. They also produced statuary, figurines, housewares, even decorative floor tiles. “They would sell them for fifty or sixty dollars,” Lee said. “And at first they started giving me like five dollars apiece, and then they gave me ten dollars apiece. And then they’d sell, and then they went up; I was getting twenty-five dollars apiece. You know, it really, it moved up.” Black churches, schools, and community centers were also significant clientele and eventually, Lee estimated, she earned around two to three thousand dollars per month, allowing her to retire from the railroad company and open her own art gallery. Likewise, Aaron and Alan eventually opened their own gallery in Evergreen Plaza mall in Evergreen Park, Illinois.

View of “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” 1994–95, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Floor: Kevin Everson, Mansfield, Ohio, End Table, 1994; Kevin Everson, Mansfield, Ohio, End Table, 1994. Wall, from left: Christian Walker, Miscegenation Series, 1985–88; Lorna Simpson, Gestures/Reenactments, 1985. Photo: Geoffrey Clements.

The success of the direct-sales art companies was coeval with a black-arts boom that began in the ’90s, heralded by Thelma Golden and her 1994–95 show “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. As a curator and steward, Golden helped foster the careers of Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons, and others, ushering black art into the vanguard of cultural and institutional discourses. In 2002, she curated “Black Romantic: The Figurative Impulse in Contemporary African-American Art” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a kind of populist, representational bookend to the Conceptualism of “Black Male.” This show included canvases by Kadir Nelson, Alexander Austin, and Dean Mitchell as well as two early pieces by Kehinde Wiley, including Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence), 2001. Repeated encounters with enthusiasts of such work had inspired her democratizing venture, Golden told Greg Tate in 2001. “When I go around the country to present a lecture and show all my slides of all my nice freaky artists like Gary and Glenn and Lorna, someone will inevitably raise a hand and ask about ‘Cynthia Saint James’ or whoever—and I don’t even know the names,” she stated, referring to Synthia Saint James, who designed the cover of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale (1992). In the show’s accompanying catalogue, Golden likens the chasm between the two artistic cohorts to the difference between McMillan and Toni Morrison. This distinction requires understanding the relation between “fine” and “popular” black art to be hierarchical, starkly delineated, and antagonistic, ignoring that Morrison was among McMillan’s mentors (Ishmael Reed was another), that both women were recipients of American Book Awards (McMillan in 1987, Morrison in 1988), and that the reshaping of publishing wrought by McMillan’s indubitable success no doubt contributed to increased popular interest in Morrison, an Oprah’s Book Club honoree.

Kehinde Wiley, Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence), 2001, oil on canvas, 72 1/2 × 72 1/2".

In 2008, Kerry James Marshall assembled his own exhibition, also titled “Black Romantic,” at Jack Shainman Gallery in midtown Manhattan. “It’s all about love!” he proclaimed in a press release, cheekily evoking the perception of the images as uncritical, sentimental schlock. Recently, reignited interest in the complexities of black figurative portraiture has augured a league of artists, including Jordan Casteel, Titus Kaphur, and Melissa Tshikampabo Kamba, who work in or alongside the Black Romantic tradition, torquing it to new ends.

Meanwhile, the home-show art companies went bust. There are no websites, no familiars, no contacts. The Direct Sales Association, an industry organization, retains no information, no phone numbers, not a record that the companies, which touted tens of millions of dollars in earnings, ever existed. A few Christmases ago, the former CEO of Artistic Impressions was spotted at a craft show in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I asked the twins for a lead. “If you find out, let me know,” Aaron chuckled. The erasure of this history has contributed to institutional apathy. “The issue with the reluctance of museums,” says critic Antwaun Sargent, “is there is no cohesive archive.” The primary source remains the street sales, vendors, fairs, expos, and ad hoc markets that circulate so much black visual culture.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893, oil on canvas, 49 × 35 1/2".

My aunt lost the apartment on Fifty-First Street. There was a technicality with her affordable-housing voucher. She now lives in a smaller place, downsized, every wall dedicated to a different motif. Annie Lee here, Ernie there. A copy of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson, 1893, inherited after my grandmother died of ovarian cancer, hangs in the smaller of two bedrooms. Another print by Jacob Lawrence resides in an opposite corner. 

I prod her for clues about what happened to the companies. She doesn’t know: One day they were there, and then they weren’t. “I quit before then, though.” Why? “I couldn’t make enough money.”

Jasmine Sanders is a writer from the south side of Chicago.