On the surface Journey: The Artistry of Curlee Raven Holton represents a straightforward mid-career survey of this nationally-recognized artist. The exhibition, now on view at the University of Maryland University College’s Arts Program Gallery, brings together sixty works spanning three decades of Holton’s visual meditations. Yet the apropos title hints at deeper intentions; spend time amidst the works and multiple journeys occur in the mind’s eye. On a technical level, there is the journey through creative forms as the local artist, who is also the Executive Director of the David Driskell Center, deftly moves between etching, acrylic, ink and mixed-media. On a more fundamental level, an emotionally rich journey through life coalesces into view as Holton examines historical notions of African-American identity while simultaneously questioning what the future may hold.
Whether created through ink or acrylic, Holton’s works display common characteristics across his various mediums. Virtually every work features some variety of human form, varying from mere silhouettes such as in Bred for Pleasure (1993) to traditional artistic poses such as the model in Blue Ananda (2017). While by and large maintaining fairly realistic representations, he often defines the forms of his characters by alternating color with significant linear elements or, in the case of his prints and engravings, negative space. Blues for the Serpent’s Love (1997) forcefully displays this structure with its tight ink lines across the woman’s shoulders and hair. Likewise Dream Bait (2017) uses color in a very painterly manner to capture his subjects’ t-shirts and faces. A compositional pattern of visually breaking-up the imagery into a series of discreet spaces can also be seen in many of the works, most notably in mixed media pieces such as Cultural Space (1995) but also in paintings such as Seasons of Innocence (2017). These compositional choices invariably highlight the emotional vulnerability of his subjects or create a storyboard effect which suggests a visual narrative is taking place.
That visual narrative is rich in both symbolism and pathos. Holton uses his personal experience as a filter to examine the African-American experience writ large and, while he does not shy away from its painful aspects in works such as Man, Mask, Meaning (1991), he is also interested in defining its legacy, as depicted in Juke Joint (1997). Echoes of that distant past seem to reverberate into the present, as violence takes hold in Patty, Save Me (2016) or is inferred in The House My Neighborhood Built (2008). To acknowledge is not to dwell and in this regard Holton seems much more interested in both celebrating the uniqueness of African-American culture and highlighting its cultural roots that span both time and continents. That time span is more forward looking in newer works like Dream Bait (2017), Somalian Youth American Dream Fantasy (2016) and the Othello series (2013), all of which acknowledge the black experience is not culturally monolithic but continually redefining itself with new voices.
It is clear the artist has spent decades counterbalancing the desire to visually distill a hopeful message while acknowledging the tribulations people of color have endured. Emotions roil across the gallery—love, pain, tenderness, objectification and a distinct feeling of “otherness”—rising and falling like the painted waves in Dream Bait. Yet the real power of Holton’s work lies in its ability to make the personal feel universal. His coloration and composition instill a sense of visual intimacy with the viewer and slowly his journey becomes our journey. Traveling together, a sense of shared humanity rises to the fore, suggesting that if we open our eyes and hearts, we are bound together more deeply than we know.
Journey: The Artistry of Curlee Raven Holton is on view through November 26th at the University of Maryland University College’s Arts Program Gallery. A full-color catalog is available. For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.
Banner image: Quilt, Blues Series (detail), 1997. Curlee Raven Holton. Etching with collage elements; 22 x 30 inches. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.