“Dream Singers, Story Tellers”

New Jersey State Museum

Organized by Allison Weld of the New Jersey State Museum and Sadao Serikawa of the Fukui Fine Arts Museum in Japan, this exhibition had already been seen in three Japanese museums before it opened in Trenton. “Dream Singers, Story Tellers: An African-American Presence” eschewed inherited hard-and-fast categories in favor of seven somewhat vaguer headings, such as “The Suggested Image” and “The Constructed Image.” From Norman Lewis to Joe Overstreet, the Harlem Renaissance–derived tradition of African-American abstract painting (which has historically had a primarily black audience) is intermingled with the tradition of so-called self-taught or outsider artists such as Bill Traylor and Bessie Harvey (whose audience has been mostly in the rural south and mostly black); the more recent wave of African-American conceptualism represented by Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, and others (whose work has addressed a primarily white urban audience); and the self-consciously post-Modernist painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn Ligon (whose work may reach a more racially mixed viewership than that of the other groups mentioned).

There is no question that African-American artists are rapidly gaining importance——they can no longer be regarded as inhabiting a parochial byway. In fact, it can be argued that addressing the inner fragmentation of the African-American art world and ensuring the reception of these artists in the mainstream are among the crucial issues facing the contemporary art world. The curators’ decision to suspend the hierarchies that categories such as “naive” or “outsider” have created in the past can only be of help in this effort. Here, there were no prejudicial definitions to inform the viewer’s response to the work.

This show presented a brilliant and varied array of works by 33 artists: Hawkins Bolden’s striking, if repetitive, figures assembled from found objects; the sophisticated and mildly tragic figuration of Benny Andrews’ oil paintings; the Piet Mondrian–like abstract quilts of Plummer Pettway; the post–Abstract Expressionist welded sculptures of Melvin Edwards; the conceptual hanging fabrics of Faith Ringgold; the appealing neo-Abstract paintings of John L. Moore; the delicate and sensitive wire-and-fabric sculptures of Lonnie Holley; the sophisticated and learned semiabstract paintings of Lewis and Overstreet; the surprising and ingenious neo-Conceptual sculptures of Willie Cole. All these and more coalesced into a bright and rewarding museum experience. This was an important show that marked a turning point in the reception of African-American art in the predominantly white contemporary art world.

Thomas McEvilley