East City Art Reviews—“JUST DO IT”: Michael Platt and Friends at Honfleur Gallery

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on September 23, 2019

Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia is currently filled with works that speak of the influence, the teaching and the mentoring, the spirit of collaboration, and the love of “making things” that characterized the life and work of Michael Platt.  A revered name in the Washington DC region, Platt worked in many mediums, but he was more than “multi-disciplinary.”  As he put it himself:

What artists do is they make stuff.  We just make things; we have to make things, particularly visual artists.”[1]

He was prolific in the sheer amount of work he created, and his advice to students—“Just do it” reflects his belief in spontaneous creativity, and in the fundamental idea that artists work.  Real artists don’t stand around theorizing and working out their angst—they are helpless to want to “make things.”  Not to take this too simplistically, Platt’s work was both carefully and deliberately carried out.  Calling himself an “image-maker,” he was profoundly serious about his themes.  These, he said were nothing less than “the human condition…in particular, the history and experiences of African and African Diaspora culture.” [2]  Yet, as his show with his longtime partner, the poet Carol Beane, at the American University Museum last January showed, his framework was more universal, reflecting his interest in many world cultures and in the particular patterns and artistic expressions found in them.  His sudden death just as that show opened may have ended his own artistic journey, but that his spirit and his practice of collaboration—not only with Beane but with many other artists in the area—continues to inspire is clearly demonstrated in the Honfleur exhibit.

Among the most powerful works in the show are Platt’s own, and two works by Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann—one of them a collaboration with Platt. There are two large and related works on fabric by Platt, both of them featuring the same draped woman in the center looking unsmilingly out over what appears like a fence covered in tangled vines.  Titled Spirit Woman of the Vines, the work has a magical quality, with a narrative that is just out of reach.

Michael Platt, Spirit Woman of the Vines, digital composite print on fabric. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

Platt is well known for his handling of digital photography, incorporating drawing and printmaking techniques to create dense images like these.  While the density may seem at first chaotic, in fact there is great order imposed here.  The overlay of repeated pattern across the figure is reminiscent of woven fabric, with interventions near the figure herself breaking into it.  The result is something that perhaps evokes African weaving, or, potentially many world cultures.  There’s even something Asian about the way that the model is posed and the patterns themselves.  The related work, titled on the checklist Figure, is similar, but much larger in a horizontal orientation.  On the wall opposite the entrance, it seems to hold the space together, and works near it, such as Sheila Crider’s Volume 3, a wall sculpture made of Yupo paper, seem to respond to its swirling forms and green/brown/tan color scheme.  

View towards Michael Platt’s Figure on the back wall. Sheila Crider’s Volume 3 is on the wall to the left. Photo by C. Rousseau for East City Art

In 2013 Platt and Tzu-Lan Mann collaborated on a body of work that was exhibited at the Grace Teshima Gallery in Paris, France. [3] The exhibition, called “Common Ground” featured work that combined Platt’s photographic images with Mann’s graphic and painted overlays.  The resulting images are rich in color and suggested meaning.  One of the works from the Paris show, which was subsequently shown at Honfleur the following year, is in the current exhibit.  It appears to represent a woman lying on her side with another figure over her, although the second figure is obscured by Mann’s expressive drawing.  While, as subject, a nude woman sleeping on her side is classic, Platt/Mann’s representation is completely unconventional.  The tension between the subject and the way it is presented is a good part of why it, and other similar works from that collaboration are so compelling.

Michael Platt and Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, Untitled, mixed media on vinyl, 2013.  Photo Phil Hutinet for East City Art

Tzu-Lan Mann’s other untitled work in the show is similarly on a vinyl support. Although at first glance it appears not to contain a figurative subject, closer inspection reveals what one could call the “ghost” of a photograph of a woman’s forearm and hand against the activated abstract forms of the composition.

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, Untitled, mixed media on vinyl. Photo Phil Hutinet for East City Art

Speaking of ghosts, Platt’s work often seems to touch on the supernatural, the presence of spirits inhabiting a place half-seen, the artist as storyteller calling them into showing themselves.  One has that feeling about the two images of the Spirit Woman in this show—as though she were conjured with that pattern to appear—but it’s also evident in the collaborative figurative pieces he made with Mann, as well as in those he carried out with Beane’s poetic texts with images from Australia that were in the American University exhibition.

Dwight E. Tyler, Plattman, digital collage.  Photo Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

The current exhibit includes a series of portraits of Platt in different modes of expression, all of which are evidence of Platt’s influence in terms of experimental techniques.  Among them is Plattman, a wonderful digital collage representation of the artist by Dwight E. Tyler.  In it, the artist’s face, as a younger man, looms out from behind a curtain of foliage, the whole colored a deep yellow against the silhouetted black branches that merge with his straw hat. In a strange way it made me think of Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci at the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), where the setting refers back to the poet herself.  Platt’s love of nature and the notion of evoking presence in natural settings might be reflected in this portrait.

Also interesting is the work by Mark Walker, a black and white image that is all about the idea of absorbing the example of Platt as mentor and teacher.  Titled Extraction Series: Platt BMFBTLTUA, it shows the student kneeling before the master, his brain and nervous system literally absorbing or “extracting” knowledge from him in a cosmic atmosphere.  And, as if to make the point again, a mirror image on the right fairly literally makes the point that Walker’s work reflects that of Platt.  The apparent meaning aside, it is a compelling image, all the more because it looks like a black & white negative. The lack of a date on the checklist is lamentable (as for all the works), but I imagine this print was made since Platt’s death.

Mark Walker, Extraction Series: Platt BMFBTLTUA, mixed media print. Photo Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

Among other works that stand out in this exhibit is Rik Freeman’s painting Cosmic Bluesman. Again, I wish the date of this painting were available, because it seems rather close in meaning to Walker’s, although in a completely different stylistic mode.

Rik Freeman, Cosmic Bluesman, oil on canvas. Photo P. Hutinet for East City Art.

Freeman is long known for his social realist paintings representing scenes of the lives of African-Americans in the period between c. 1880-1930, a critical historical period for their great migration north, and the period in which blues music was born from their work and religious songs.  In a series referred to as the “Chittlin’ Circuit Review” that Freeman began in 1994, the artist used a style reminiscent of the lively social realist paintings of Reginal Marsh or those of Robert Riggs, the latter known particularly for his representations of African-American culture in the cities of the North in the 1920s and 30s.  In the period addressed by Freeman, the “Chittlin’Circuit” was a term used to refer to the venues and routes in the East and South-East states where black musicians and performers were able to travel and present under Jim Crow restrictions.  The painting in the Honfleur exhibit is related to those works, but is substantially different.  Much more abstract, and featuring a single figure, it appears to be a portrait of Platt as a cosmic musician, his spirit located somewhere above the clouds, playing tunes that continue to inspire.

“Just Do It: Michael Platt and Friends.” Curated by Carol Beane and Duane Gautier.  Through Sept. 28, 2019.  Honfleur Gallery (ARCH), 1241 Good Hope Road, S.E., Washington DC 20026.  Wed-Sat. 12-7 PM. For information call 202-365-8392.

Rotating banner image: Michael Platt, Figure (Spirit Woman of the Vines), digital composite print on fabric. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

[1] https://www.invisionsarts.com/michael-platt

[2] https://www.invisionsarts.com/michael-platt

[3] The exhibition in Paris was made possible by The Sister City International Arts Grant that was awarded to Honfleur Gallery by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.  It was in Paris Sept-Oct. 2013, and at Honfleur Jan-Feb. 2014.