Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction!
The Museum of the African Diaspora’s third-floor exhibition hall has low ceilings and little natural light. The exhibition in this space, Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction!, showcases nine Bay Area artists who worked with abstract forms; exploring the cross-cultural exchange between this group, which bridged race and gender divides.
The works are mostly large canvases, and the sparse track canisters that illuminate them can make sustained looking a perplexing chore. It was irritating at first. But as I passed through the exhibition, I stopped wishing for a cavernous and sterile white cube associated with formalism and science, and instead took in these pictures as though they appeared on a crowded city street: earnestly, sometimes furtively, and with an openness to shape-shifting.
Robert Colescott, WMD: Remembering Sardanapalus, 2004-2006; acrylic on canvas; image courtesy the Museum of the African Diaspora.
A prime example is Robert Colescott’s painting A Stroll Through the Neighborhood (1986), which hangs next to a 1987 study of this work. The study consists of two drawings in pencil and watercolor on a single horizontal sheet of paper; on the left is a drawing of the painting enhanced with purple watercolor, and on the right appears the painting drawn in reverse with the same graphite and purple. This three-way mirroring changes the viewer’s experience of the work. On the left, one sees a figurative painting with a crowded composition within a shallow pictorial space; on the right, it’s a repeated matrix of forms that encourages viewers to pick out patterns. Similar but twenty years younger is Colescott’s acrylic diptych WMD: Remembering Sardanapalus (2004-2006), which features slippery skeletal shapes thrown across adjacent symmetrical canvases with electric magenta ground. Colescott again collapses voluminous flesh into a pattern, emptying human and animal figures of their familiarity.
Other works address the problem of paint’s inherent indistinctness with bawdy wit. For example, Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s charcoal and pastel drawing Whales Fucking Series #2 (1976) suggests the silhouette of one whale doing something … kind of. There are other vertical lines and passages of color in the picture plane that don’t immediately indicate whale fornication. In fact, many of the elements in the painting occlude its titular subject (which is already hard to imagine independently of this picture). This is a particularly clever choice for an exhibition that deals with race and diaspora, because the Whales Fucking Series affirms meaning’s separation from appearance—a painted image isn’t completely commensurate with its name.
Joan Brown, Yellow Dog Walking Along SF Street, 1972; enamel on masonite; image courtesy the Museum of the African Diaspora.
The show’s strongest work is Joan Brown’s Yellow Dog Walking Along SF Street (1972). The seven-and-a-half- by-four-foot painting depicts a mastiff against a royal blue street and a background of deep pink architecture. Here Brown used enamel on Masonite, and its slickness makes the dog look suspended in aqueous expanses of color. It’s not clear what the dog portends. Its acrid yellow and brown tones—which clash totally with the other colors—push some tension into the composition, but its benign facial expression exudes a level of contentment. Perhaps Brown, who in this period was interested in New Age spirituality, evoked the contentment experienced by many other San Franciscans in the early 70s; according to novelist Edmund White, the city was “almost bucolic” then. In any case, the dog is as narratively opaque as other forms and colors in the show are semiotically opaque. Where O’Neal’s and Colescott’s paintings obscure the meaning of forms, Brown’s composition implies a story but doesn’t describe its setting or course of events. It positions figuration and abstraction as closer cousins still.
The history of abstract painting in the Bay Area is particularly mercurial. Most people who identified as abstract painters in San Francisco weren’t completely or polemically so, and even welcomed figuration into their work as a way of articulating the everyday concerns of West Coast life. With Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction!, LeFalle-Collins introduces race and identity as factors that further complicate this stylistic hybridity, and the resulting lack of clarity is richly cacophonous.