Space to Dream: “Reflections of the Harlem Renaissance” at Kennedy Heights

March 27th, 2021  |  Published in *, March 2021

Featuring one or two works by twelve artists, Reflections of the Harlem Renaissance might at first seem a small show. But stopping to dwell with any piece reveals a vast and at times overwhelming attention to the history of art and politics in the U.S. Subtitled The Legacy Continues, the exhibit finds contemporary painters, photographers, and multimedia specialists giving thanks to their influences from the Harlem Renaissance. The show thus has a highly intertextual character, with the significance of any single piece arising from conversations between creators who are situated a century apart. Those conversations find striking continuities between eras, as artists then and now struggle toward self-determination in contexts where racist violence and sexual discrimination are everyday realities. Yet even as those continuities lend the show a critical poignancy, Reflections mixes the critique with playful experimentation and a sense of joy.

Cedric Michael Cox, Mystic Rhythms, acrylic on canvas, 2021

That joy resonates with particular intensity in Cedric Michael Cox’s Mystic Rhythms, which he dedicates to painter Lois Maliou Jones. Cox admires Jones’s mastery of multiple styles and genres, and he praises her striving beyond portraiture earlier than many other African American artists. She made conceptual connections between African abstraction and Cubism while showing equal facility creating soft, impressionist scenes and bold, geometrical configurations. With Mystic Rhythms, Cox shows a similar fascination with shapes while honoring Jones’s love for music and nature. A horn or flower rises from the lower left to the top center of the painting, surrounded by stylized musical staffs and surreal notation, wildly blooming fruits and buds. The repetition of wave-like patterns and swirls alludes powerfully to Jones’s Les Fetiches, while the African masks and exploding pyramids recall The Ascent of Ethiopia. Mixing a range of pastels with moments of darkness and beams of light, Mystic Rhythms evokes constant, energetic movement, celebrating Jones’s versatility while filtering her ideas through Cox’s own lively vernacular.

Michael Coppage (Prosper Jones), Alaine Locke’s Paradox,
oil on canvas, 2021

Michael Coppage (aka Prosper Jones) also translates the ideas of a creative ancestor into his own lexicon, focusing not on a visual artist but on philosopher and social critic Alain Locke. One of the premier theorists of the Harlem Renaissance as it unfolded, Locke drew the world’s attention to the many forms of literary, musical, and artistic awakening occurring among Black Americans in the nineteen-teens and twenties. He made such forceful appeals for racial equity that he was dismissed from Howard University, only to return later and expand his original lines of critique. However trenchant that critique, he felt compelled to conceal his sexuality as a gay man. Coppage keeps these complexities in mind when producing Alain Locke’s Paradox, which finds both oppressor and oppressed in dire trouble, trying to survive but grasping at air. A wave crashes at the core of the painting, threatening worse trouble to come. Yet from another lens, the wave might bring mixing and merging, prompting mutual support rather than isolation. The crisis is imminent. The response remains uncertain, though the prospects look dim.

TC Flowers, Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, acrylic and plaster on found wood assemblage, 2021

Although plenty of Harlem Renaissance voices exposed the destructive effects of white supremacist ideology for both Black and White people, Locke preferred art that addressed such problems in oblique fashion, and he saw African American self-celebration as a better approach to social transformation than works of direct protest. In “Art or Propaganda,” he encouraged the makers of Renaissance culture not to “preach” or “cajole” but rather to sing. TC Flowers expresses a related sentiment with It Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, a twenty-first century salute to classic Blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. The piece adorns both women with halos while accentuating their lavish dress and theatrical accessories. Golden jewelry and handfuls of cash suggest economic self-determination in a world that mainly denied such comforts to Black women. The rough-and-ready backdrop brings their prosperity into relief while also hinting at its unlikelihood. Gallery notes also reflect on both singers’ sexual relationships with other women in a hostile, heterosexist context, giving particular significance to the work’s title.

Skye High, Untitled, archival inkjet print on paper, 2021

The audacity to indulge in forbidden pleasures constitutes one version of what Locke means by “singing.” In that sense, song races past critique toward the embodiment of new epistemologies and social arrangements, however localized. Skye High praises such daring in the photography of James Van Der Zee, whose images express the “shameless self love, opulence, and whimsy” of Black Renaissance culture. As “a BIPOC Queer human who enjoys showcasing the power of those they love and revealing the unexpected,” Skye High identifies with Van Der Zee’s studio practices—his use of backdrops, props, and clothing that “created a place for everyone to dream.” Paying homage to those places, a new, untitled photograph features a model draped with plush fabrics and magnificent jewelry, her eyes cast down in contemplation, or closed as if dreaming at midday.

For some artists, such loving portraits bring with them an erotic charge. Natasha Quitano dramatizes that spark in More than Friends, a painting that imagines Beauford Delaney having a suggestive encounter with his model. Delaney brought social realist painting to New York at the outset of the Great Depression, paying exacting attention to the economic struggles of his Black neighbors. Yet as the years ran on, he developed a more abstract style while mixing his class politics with discreet participation in Harlem’s queer culture. The influence of European modernism became apparent in his impasto brushstrokes and use of vivid color, indicating his admiration for the Fauvists who flourished just after the turn of the century. With More than Friends, Quitano alludes to that style while addressing the complexities of progressive identity in a world of profound restriction; she emphasizes the social and political risks of “singing” when unsympathetic and even dangerous audiences might overhear. No less important, she depicts artistic and sexual identity as uncertain processes: facial features remain obscure, perhaps because identity has yet to take a lucid shape, or because it can never be more than a mask. Still, amid the turmoil there is a hypnotic sensuality, a whirlpool beneath the model drawing both men in.

Natasha Quintano, More Than Friends, acrylic on canvas, 2021

The staging of the piece indicates that even though Quitano has painted the image, Delaney still intervenes as a narrative presence, an off-canvas character who addresses himself to the model. Such layered storytelling exists throughout the gallery, with each of today’s artists not only creating an image but recreating the perspective, or at least the imagined viewpoint, of their Harlem Renaissance predecessors. That sleight of hand attests to the virtuosity of the painters and designers but also to the vision of curators Lex Nycole and Gee Horton. With their emphasis on “reflections” in the show’s title, they nudge gallery-goers to consider the mirroring that occurs across disparate eras—some of which involves style and genre, some of which connotes longstanding social relations and forms of civic struggle. However the artists honor their ancestors, whether in formal or political terms or both at once, they claim for themselves Skye High’s vision of creative sanctuary, the space to dream in otherwise perilous conditions. The results do not merely assert that the legacy of the Renaissance continues, they offer themselves as proof.

–Christopher Carter

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