Issues surrounding the subject of artists’ “late styles” have been of interest for art historians for a long time. How does an artist’s self-conception change with age? How does aging affect an artist’s practice? How do the physical effects of old age affect a visual artist’s productivity? For fairly obvious reasons, the focus has typically been on great artists of the past with long careers such as Titian, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cézanne and Degas. Generally speaking, most discussions of the issue conform to the opinion once voiced by the late Walter Friedlaender to the effect that artists tend to develop a “broadening and deepening of imagination in form and idea” which compensates for the loss of physical strength and ability. With the growth of current interest in “active aging” the same questions might be posed about contemporary artists entering or already in the late stage of their careers.
The title of the Brentwood exhibit certainly seems to suggest that this would be the aim of the show and that evidence of this “broadening and deepening” among a group of local artists at this point in their lives and work would come forward. While it’s clear that all four of the participants are actively engaged in their creative lives, producing work that is of high quality, there was a missed opportunity here to actually do that. This no doubt has something to do with the way that the exhibit came into being.
Dr. Jason Kuo of the Department of Art History at the University of Maryland, College Park approached Phil Davis, Director of the Brentwood Arts Exchange with an idea to involve undergraduate students in a course on curatorial practices in an exhibit that would allow them unprecedented access to members of the artistic community living or working in the Gateway Arts District. Soon after deciding to work together, the decision was made to focus on artists over 60, all of whom had been making art for nearly their entire lives, but who had achieved the freedom to work full time after working a “day job” for many years. It is true, as Davis wrote in his statement, that not only are we “awakening to an appreciation of the value of aging,” but that although “the media fetish on the young will certainly persist, the fine arts offer us an alternative tradition… because they are lifelong pursuits within which mastery may never be attained. Only years can bring an artist closer to it.” One is reminded of the now famous remark of the aged Michelangelo: ancora imparo (I am still learning).
With all this to go on, and the fact that the eight students involved in the project were divided among four artists selected by Davis and Kuo, the outcome falls short of the vision. We know that the students made studio visits to their assigned artists, that for all of them this was a truly unique opportunity, and that the curatorial process was left to them. That would have been fine but for the fact that when the work was installed, there was apparently a decision not to include dates of creation on labels or lists, effectively preventing the viewer from being able to understand the place of individual works in each artist’s stylistic and technical trajectory. The problem is complicated by the fact that not all the work is new, and this is also where the opportunity to demonstrate the “late style” effect was lost. If this experiment is repeated—and one would certainly hope so—then this might prove a lesson not only in curatorial practice but also in installation. On the positive side, the experience was one that may have set the tone for future involvement in the arts, and for the non-art history majors in the class, opened new areas of interest that might bear fruit later on.
This is not to detract from the experience of the art itself, and the manner in which it does, at the least, show that the vibrancy of creativity is most certainly not limited to the young. The exhibit shows us the work of four established artists of different backgrounds and media: Alonzo Davis, Dorothy Fall, Bertrand Mao and Valerie Watson. To my mind, the most outstanding among them is Alonzo Davis who contributed work selected by Lindsay d’Andelet and Joanna Mak. Among the most impressive works in the show is his large Targeted in the USA. Made in response to police shootings of unarmed black men in 2015, the work features Davis’ often used bamboo crossed over textured surfaces, in this case including African prints, with a cluster of bullets in the center. On first viewing, the aesthetic strength of the composition is what strikes the viewer, until he notices that the shiny bits in the center are, indeed, bullets. Davis also made a video to accompany the work which is not in the exhibit. Other works by Davis from this year include further additions to his series “Enlightened Pass” using collage and bamboo, and painting on cardboard pasted onto canvas with an overall blue tone. The surfaces are fascinating, sometimes splashed with gold paint, all with the density of pattern and layering that has become a hallmark of his practice. These are three dimensional works that hang on the wall like paintings and reflect Davis’ travels and the richness of his creative mind. The energy of his production is self-evident in the fact that so much work was ready for this show that went up last month dated 2016.
Equally powerful, but very different, is the work of Valerie Watson whose large scale watercolors on paper were selected by Sonya Johnson and Chyna Sequeira. Using a strikingly realist style, something that grew from her early interest in photography, Watson presents us with works that evoke the people and places she has encountered in her world travels. Their brilliant color and depth are visually dramatic and compelling.
The work of Bertrand Mao is fundamentally calligraphic. Of Chinese descent and training, Mao has learned the hand that can effect both traditional Chinese script as well as the cursive variety. His work makes an interesting contrast to that of the other artists in the show, and gives it a decisively international feeling. One work was particularly stunning, a poem in the cursive hand in ink on paper beginning: the waves of the mighty river flow eastward…. . As Ruoyu Zhu’s statement points out, “Chinese painting is written with a brush, while Chinese calligraphy is drawn as a picture.”
Finally, the work of Dorothy Fall was selected by Katrina Chao and Jon Ryan. Fall has been involved in the spirituality and life forces of nature. Her work here focusses on her attraction to tree forms with vigorous strokes evoking their form. Using a wide range of media, her abstract representations of natural form evoke a sense of the power of growth, that upward force that embodies the life of trees and their return in the spring. The ancient Romans believed that the god Mars gave plants the force they needed to come back to life every year. Wherever that power comes from, the love of life and creativity is evidenced in all four participants in this show, and is an inspiration to all of us.
 Walter Friedlaender, “Poussin’s Old Age,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 60, 1962, p. 249.
Boundless: Aging and Creativity at the Brentwood Arts Exchange Gallery, 3901 Rhode Island Avenue, Brentwood, MD is on view through May 28, 2016. For more information visit www.mncppcapps.org/pgparks/art_events/exhibitions.aspx?q=brentwood