Listening to African-American art

“Spectrum: a celebration of artistic diversity”: Until February 6 at the Lois & David Stulberg Gallery at Ringling College, 1188 Dr. Martin Luther King Way, Sarasota. Vernissage and artistic walk 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. 941-359-7563;

The visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum goes from purple to red. African American artists have their own set of frequencies. “Spectrum” tunes in to their broadcasts at Ringling College, where curator Tim Jaeger samples shows by artists from the dawn of the 20th century to the present day. The 23 artists presented in this exhibition come loud and clear, but from different places.

Gayle Fulton Ross reveals and covers up. Her “Modern Sojourner” (2006) portrays a middle-aged African-American woman with a serious and downcast expression. She is lost in thought, does not pose, a formidable presence. A contemporary reincarnation of Sojourner Truth? No guesswork. That’s what the title says. Ross’s “Coming from Under the Mask” (1995) is more ambiguous. A stylized black woman in a ballet pose, wrapped in veils and holding a traditional African mask. Does she take it off or put it on?

Romare Bearden’s “Jazz II Deluxe” (1980) is a fractured be-bop fairy tale. An image cut out in the kitchen of a jazz quartet, in contrasting tones of warm and cold colors. Like some cubist cartoons, the faces of the musicians are reconstructed from cut-out elements. An eye; a cigarette; a giant hand reaching for a keyboard. The image is dissonant, playful and overwhelming. Bearden paints the way jazz sounds.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Supercomb” lithograph (1988) is a hybrid between the art of graffiti and manic doodle. A dense collision of words and images on a garish yellow background. The scribbles and scribbles feature a donut, cowboy, robot, the artist’s Parisian address, and a man folding the unbreakable SUPERCOMB. Well, this is not the case. It is art as a stream of consciousness. Basquiat threw the scrambled contents of his mind onto a piece of paper. Do you want to know what he was thinking that day? That’s it.

Jacob Lawrence is obsessed with construction. In his series of colorful paintings, black carpenters hammer, drill, and saw in high-end homes they won’t live in. A recurring theme, and either a metaphor or a precise report. Lawrence’s (1957) “The Carpenter” is a stark pen and ink drawing that frames the problem in black and white. As in William Blake’s “Ancient of Days”, a carpenter frowns studies a plan with his arms outstretched. He is clearly not happy. A plumb line hangs at a crazy angle. This tells him that something is not on level.

Richard Mayhew’s “June Tone Poem” (1997) straddles the line of abstraction and representation. Is it trees in the background or a blot of blue ink? All the foregoing.

Eleanor Merritt’s (1983) oil on canvas “Blue Lady, Blue Dreams” is a moody blue Madonna, defined in liquid lines. A feathered figure, angelic and distant – and as solid as a teardrop. It blends into itself, flows in different shapes. Merritt’s Art Deco Angel is a shapeshifter.

Faith Ringgold gives Marc Chagall’s iconic flying dreams a unique twist. His dream of escape is his dream of emancipation. This dream takes flight in a night scene from Ringgold’s children’s book, “Tar Beach” (1993). A gravity-defying black girl in a yellow dress slips the ties of the earth in 1939 in Harlem. She flies over the George Washington Bridge, gazing at the city lights and stars of a deep blue sky. It is a sincere vision of freedom and possibilities.

Aminah Robinson’s “Clutch of Blossom” series celebrates game-changing women artists in the black community. His portrait of “Maya Angelou, poet” (1990) captures the charisma of the writer. A multimedia image of swirling color and energetic ink line. Angelou’s eyes see far away. The poet’s gnarled and oversized hands echo Albrecht Durer’s “Praying Hands”, his 1514 engraving. They tell you that Angelou is not a disembodied conscience stuck in his head; it spreads around the world and affects people. You know, she had to work really hard to win those hands.

The common element here?

There is nothing like it.

These artists do not correspond to any formula. Their work here covers the range of mediums, attitudes and subjects. You will see abstraction, realism, political bricks, personal visions, commercial art, detached intellectual cool and gut-level anger. The spectrum of creativity is wide. According to Jaeger, that’s the point.

“We knew we couldn’t do justice to the full spectrum of African American art in this exhibit,” Jaeger said. “Our goal was to start a conversation, not to have the last word. We hope visitors want to learn more about all African American artists – and dig into the issues and realities behind their work. Whether it’s about these artists, their work, what we do or how we treat each other, this is a conversation that needs to take place.