New York

Joe Overstreet

Kenkeleba Gallery

Joe Overstreet has been a Modernist painter for 35 years. In the late ’50s and early ’60s he made Color Field paintings which, despite their skill and focus, did not gain wide recognition. At the time, in the white community, it was not regarded as appropriate for African-American artists to practice abstraction, which was seen as the special sign of white civilization and its supposed superiority. This dismissal is ironic, given that a major thread of African-American art has been the continuing practice of abstract painting by artists such as Overstreet, Sam Gilliam, and Frank Bowling, who remained dedicated to the medium long after most white artists had passed on to other things. Even more ironically, Overstreet’s penchant for abstract painting was based in part on his feeling that such work gives no clue as to the ethnicity of its maker, and in Overstreet’s mind art, as a universal human reality, should be beyond such questions. From 1972 to 1988, with the exception of one Kenkeleba show, Overstreet did not exhibit any work.

Recently his new work began to move tentatively into post-Modern modes by acknowledging ethnicity. The “Storyville” paintings of 1988, while mostly abstract, still refer, through the series title, to a locus of African-American cultural experience.

In 1992 Overstreet went to Senegal to participate in the Dakar Biennale and returned with an inspiration for the series of works in this show, “Facing the Door of no Return.” Ten huge canvases and one smaller one (all 1993) incorporate references to African themes into a fundamentally abstract style and format that harks all the way back to French Impressionism. On the one hand these paintings are masterful paeans to the idea and experience of color as pure feeling. On the other, they refer both by name (Goree, Exchange, House of Diop) and through allusion (Baobab and Fish, Dousou’s Field) to the history of the slave trade and to the idea of Africa as a nourishing matrix. The experience of viewing these towering fields of turbulent yet gentle color with small inset areas of geometry is made strangely haunting by this duality. The works show a sensibility that has been thoroughly imbued with European-derived artistic practices and seems affirmatively at home with them, yet at the same time they cloak the dark secret of Euro-American history—the rape of Africa by the slave trade, colonialism, imperialism—beneath their sumptuous colorism. The small areas of geometry that emerge ambiguously from the enveloping colored grounds represent the door, mentioned in the title, through which enslaved Africans were loaded onto ships. Without putting too much of a point on it, one might say that the geometric areas represent European culture and its steely entrapment of the Other, while the billowing color fields represent precolonial African society as a place of generous feeling and expansive energy. In Overstreet’s brief statement in the catalogue, he refers to this double-edged situation as an approach to an artistic solution of “the duality of pain and beauty.” In the end, he says, these stunning paintings “represent hope and optimism.”

Thomas McEvilley