David Driskell explores a distinct creative freedom that Maine affords him, as stated in a quote displayed on one of the object labels of Renewal and Form, his new exhibition at Rockland's Center for Maine Contemporary Art.
“I came to Maine not because I expected to have wide acceptance, but to work independently as I wanted to, to be left alone without having to answer all kinds of questions about my race. Maine has a welcoming attitude and it values its independence. Here I can just be human. That is part of what Maine has meant to me.”
A regular alumnus and faculty member at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and longtime resident of Falmouth, the artist’s voice is incorporated throughout the show, a selection of recent relief prints which navigate themes and aesthetics known to the artist’s practice: biblical narratives that resonated from his southern Baptist upbringing, African diasporic art, history, and textiles and the bold mark-making and composition of American modernism. Paired with Driskell’s own words, the prints offer up intimate looks into the artist’s preoccupations, sources of inspiration, and preferences for making.
Also a renowned curator, educator, and scholar, Driskell’s contributions to the field of African American Art History are immense. His 1976 exhibition, “Two Centuries of Black American Art (1750-1950),” is widely considered foundational to the field itself. He has written or co-written nine books on African American Art History and published more than 40 catalogs from exhibitions he has curated. The University of Maryland College Park, where Driskell is Professor Emeritus, founded the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, rewards artists’ and scholars’ contributions to the field of African American Art with the annual David C. Driskell prize.
Jacob Wrestling the Angel, 2015, color woodcut/serigraph, 14" x 10"
Driskell’s name is bound up with the historicization of African American Art and efforts committed to its ongoing expansion and visibility. Likewise his artwork has become embedded in the history-telling of black American culture — his 1956 painting Behold Thy Son, made in response to the murder of Emmett Till, hangs not far from Till’s actual coffin in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
The desire for space apart from this staggering legacy, space to create within a field more expressly personal, is essential to Driskell’s recent art practice. By the artist’s own account, Maine offers this privacy and potential. In a 2017 interview with Portland Magazine, Driskell asserted, “I am not trying to make Black art. I am trying to make my art.”
Renewal and Form offers just that intimate view, into a bold and skilled experimentation with imagery drawn specifically from personal reference and cultural connection.
Driskell’s prints all share his decisive line work and a dense, energetic picture plane. He fills his matrices, some of which are on view in the gallery, with loose, daring marks for an initial pull, then responds with layers of additional color, building up a rich composition. This responsive, soulful labor lends a tenderness to the portraits, whether they are anonymous (Woman Reading), cultural icons (Lady Day), mythic ancestral figures (Brown Venus), or the explicitly personal Grandma Hon, presented alongside a quote from Driskell about his maternal grandmother and her family history.
The affection of The Cook I-III series, paired on one wall with a domestic still life, reverberate with the deep and familiar comforts of home. Here the artist says, “We didn’t see ourselves so much as artists but as people who were self-sufficient. Art was part and parcel of that process even though we didn’t call it art. Making things was there in almost everything we did because we needed them to survive.”
Themes of self-reliance and agency link back to Driskell’s love of nature, both the biblical parables of man’s survival in the wilderness and life in relative isolation in the actual woods of Maine. Jacob Wrestling the Angel is laden with color and graphic dynamism, zooming in on the Genesis story’s central conflict by the riverside. Lake and Forest, a more minimal black and white linocut landscape vibrates with smooth descriptive outlines reminiscent of Keith Haring.
Accent of Autumn, the most abstract work in the show and the only sole serigraph, explodes with thick swaths of color, as if the artist’s marks were overtaken by their own energy and had to cease description to just pulse and tremble on the page.
Renewal and Form offers an up close and current look into Driskell’s aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual sources and his preferred modes for making. It is not to be missed.
Renewal and Form, works by David Driskell | Through June 4 | Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 21 Winter St., Rockland | www.cmcanow.org