Life’s Struggles and Black Rage: The Fire Then and Now
Review of Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem was on exhibit at the Art Institute from May 21 to August 28, 2016
New Art Examiner Volume 31 number 1, September / October 2016 pp 31-32
The exhibit focuses on collaborative projects created by two seminal Afro-American artists, each a consummate master of their mediums. Both formed their unique artistic identity during the time of the Harlem Renaissance from the 1920s to the mid ‘30s, a period in which Afro-American culture in general, and Harlem in particular, underwent an explosive cultural transformation that merged with a potent sense of self-determination.
The exhibit features two photo essays, Harlem is Nowhere and A Man Becomes Invisible intended to be published as magazine photo essays, aimed at having both a popular and socially conscious purpose. The exhibit begins with nine Parks photographs dating from 1943–48 showing life on the streets of Harlem: empathetic portraits of people both alone or in groups, wearing their humanity in spite of the surrounding squalor and depressed conditions. Parks looks for stories of ordinary people, becoming a sympathetic witness of their individual particularity as much as their harrowing social conditions. These are followed by photographs illustrating segments of Ellison’s book Invisible Man for a Life magazine essay. Several photos are deliberately staged, showing the narrator in his underground hideaway, emerging from a manhole cover, eating a sandwich, or running with a suitcase. These posed vignettes contrast with images of street scenes that are unpredictable and spontaneous, catching the expressive gestures of an orator, groups conversing on their doorsteps, and crowds of people strolling down the avenue. The self-conscious power of Ellison’s narrative, with its tone of rage, introspection, and poetic irony are more illustrative than what is expressed by Parks’ posed photos. However, Parks' spontaneous street photography catches prosaic and haphazard details that occupy a different, less specific and more open-ended “narrative” than the Ellison texts. These photos are often the more interesting, expanding into unpredictable moments of people caught in the flow of life. The pictures planned for the 1947 photo essay, Harlem is Nowhere, were never published.
However Ellison challenged Parks to create images that served as “both document and symbol; both reality and psychologically disturbing image” based on the subject of the newly-opened Lafarge Psychiatric Clinic. We witness the back of a man walking down an alley next to squalid tenements, smoky Harlem rooftops that resemble an inferno, the dark shapes of children huddling around a trash fire, and a homeless couple sleeping on the sidewalk. The images are hallucinatory and disturbing, crackling with the pain of a human existence burdened by poverty and injustice. They reveal Parks at his most expressively powerful. The collaboration proved more effective this time, psychologically unveiling Ellison’s and Park’s personal experiences of suffering and injustice exposed by the harsh existential truths of life in Harlem. The middle of the room has a long glass case showing artifacts from the collaboration: pages from Life magazine, press sheets from film stock, and pages of typed text by Ellison. The press sheets prove to be the most fascinating. They reveal how Parks shot sequential photos of public events from which he selected a particular image, sometimes cropping it to heighten the presentation of his subject. They reveal the mastery of his craft as well as the manner in which his eye searched for and edited what it found in the spontaneity of public life. The present-day Black Lives Matter movement harkens back to protest traditions that came from periods of awakened social consciousness such as the Civil Rights movement, Harlem Renaissance, and the social and political upheavals of the 1930’s. In each instance these movements developed a need to fight for a renewed sense of self-determination and criticism of the status quo. Some of the current figurative work of established Afro-American artists like Kerry James Marshall (exhibiting at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago through September 25) confronts ever more directly his rage about slavery in America’s past. His portrait of Nat Turner holding an ax in front of the bed displaying his decapitated former master is unforgettable. The Art Institute’s retrospective of Martin Puryear this past spring included a model of his recently conceived sculpture Shackled. Intended as a monumental public work, it is a direct reference to the violent history of slavery in America and it's present day manifestations. It makes sense that the current social resurgence of black activism today has influenced AIC curators to find illuminating narratives such as the Ellison/Parks collaboration. For both artists, communicating with your audience was critical, especially regarding issues of pain and social breakdown similar to what we are re-experiencing today. By contrast, many of the previous exhibits in the same Renzo Piano wing photography room exhibited work based mostly on conceptual art and pop culture influences. It is predictable that such exhibits were sparsely attended, attesting to how little of human relevance the art had to communicate. It is a reminder of how the institutional framework of mainstream art has ignored both social life and the human need to express the reality of what is happening today.
Clearly the high audience attendance of the Parks/Ellison exhibit speaks to the need revitalize a kind of “social realism” about the present. It is not accidental that Kerry James Marshall, after all, was influenced by the 1930's social realism of his teacher, Charles White. It is fitting that we are able to know about Marshall's work in the present because of how he has succeeded being a relevant figurative artist in a conceptually dehumanizing art world environment. But questions remain. What are the real narratives in our culture that connect with the vital reality of present day social life? If they exist, will they be swept away like the Ellison/Parks collaboration was forgotten and ignored in an earlier time by the mainstream establishment? Who are the cultural and artistic visionaries who embody the spirit of Gordon Parks or Ralph Ellison today? And, equally important, will contemporary cultural institutions have the capacity to even recognize their significance?