East City Art Reviews: “David C. Driskell” at the Brentwood Arts Exchange

By Eric Hope on July 18, 2011

The Brentwood Arts Exchange is currently hosting Artistic Reflections: An Exhibition Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Dr. David C. Driskell, an engaging show investigating the linkages between student and teacher.  East City Art recently sat down with Alec Simpson, the gallery’s director, to learn more about this sage — David C. Driskell — and the students who followed in his footsteps.

Described by Simpson as a “dean of African-American artists”, David Driskell is simultaneously a scholar, instructor, collector and noted artist.  He received his undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1955 and an MFA from Catholic University in 1962.  He is well-accomplished on many fronts:  his work hangs in the National Gallery of Art (among others); he has served as chair of the department of art at the University of Maryland; and he has curated ground-breaking exhibitions in the field of African-American art history.  All the while he teaches.

"Chieftan's Chair", David C. Driskell

Driskell, a Hyattsville resident, turns 80 this year and his eponymous center at the University of Maryland is celebrating the milestone through a series of events; this exhibition is a concurrent tribute.. Simpson, who has known Driskell since the 1970s, has cast this exhibition as a lifetime celebration of the artist viewed through the context of his influence on those he mentored.  He consulted with Driskell to bring in students whose current artistic output is rooted in the ethos of their one-time mentor.  A handout contains first-hand testimonials from the three student-artists, but actual text panels in the gallery are spare, letting the artworks speak for themselves.

The works in the exhibition are roughly grouped by artist.  Somewhat surprisingly, Dr. Driskell’s works are not placed prominently; the viewer must cross through the gallery’s space (passing by sculptural pieces from Sylvia Snowden) to reach his four pieces included in this show.  We started our tour with these pieces and immediately noted the adroit way in which Driskell has combined elements of African tribal iconography with “traditional”, Western motifs.  Simpson describes the artwork as, “universal – beyond the African-American experience,” and what we see here is a unique mélange of styles in which cultural traditions create works that are both fragmented and uniquely whole.  Dancing Angel features the image of woman whose fecund hips are simultaneously reminiscent of an African tribal totem and a Matisse cutout and whose countenance is a mishmash of cross-cultural styling.  The blending continues in African Woman, Windows which places the colorful image of an African woman into the composition of a stained glass window.  The importance of color is also suggested by the Fauvist, almost garish palette in Yoruba Couple and Chieftan’s Chair, the latter of which contains a headpiece rendered in a style reminiscent of Basquiat or de Kooning.

work by Starmanda Bullock

With Driskell’s imagery in mind, we turned our attention to the works submitted by his students, looking for references to their former instructor.  Each could be seen as referential in turn, though not always overtly.  Works by Starmanda Bullock from her series Les visions japonaises de Paris/Une series de fleurs et leurs applications decorations are perhaps most reminiscent of her teacher in their share a similar compositional style.  Use of color is obviously key, though here she uses blocks of color as opposed to the jagged lines and splotches of her mentor.  Like her mentor, she is also melding different cultural iconography together; the French title of the piece contrasts nicely with the Asian motifs within each work.

Sylvia Snowden’s series Malik, Farewell ‘Til We Meet Again is more abstract.  According to Snowden, Dr. Driskell, “encouraged us to expand our artististic reference but was always interested in the seed of Blackness in our work.”  Each piece has a strong center area of serene color impeded upon by outside forces.  Thick brushstrokes and elements of mixed-media are used to connote shapes swarming across the canvas.  The balanced tension between serene, subdued color and frenetic brushstrokes does seem to reference what she learned in the classroom.  There is a somber backstory to the works not self-evident.  The paintings and sculptures in this series were created after the murder of her son Malik in 1993 at the young age of 18, with each piece documenting a moment of his journey into manhood.  While the works are intensely personal on the surface, the abstract nature blunts the pain.  Much lighter in nature (and a showstopper) is Skateboard, a newer, painted sculpture placed in the center of the gallery.  A kaleidoscopic celebration of paint, Skateboard powerfully arcs up off the floor, giving life to an impasto of orange, yellow and red.  This is Snowden in happier times, giving free reign to the joy of paint.

"Skateboard", Sylvia Snowden; works by David C. Driskell on wall behind.

Jeremy Austin’s starkly minimal Twins at first seems to have little in connection with the works of his professor.  Composed of a series of stark, black-on-black squares, Wright states his works are, “the result of a focused systemic spiritual approach,” to art.  Austin converted to the Baha’i faith in 1997 and

"Twins", Jeremy Austin (partial view)

his works use the traditional Arabic Abjad system of letter-number equivalence to express the religious concepts of the faith.  While religion informs the ideals behind the piece, the viewer will likely concentrate more on the shapes and tones of color within the space.  Viewed quietly with attention, the piece does have a reverential quality to it.  While love of color was obviously not passed down between artistic generations (at least not in this piece), perhaps a more important artistic ideal was:  listen to your heart.

Artistic Reflections:  An Exhibition Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Dr. David C. Driskell runs through August 13.  For information and directions, please click here for the gallery’s website.