Thursday, May 17, 2007

Playing in the Dark

I made a field trip to Larry Becker Contemporary Art Gallery in Olde City Philadelphia last week to see the all-black paintings of Quentin Morris. These paintings need to be seen in person to be experienced, like any true single-color abstractions. (A view from the exhibit is above.)

Morris uses black gesso and acrylic on round pieces of canvas to create interesting textures and feels. The roughly cut edges of the circular pieces of canvas just add to the experience. You wish that you could just reach out and touch each of these pieces. The physicality of the works warms up any potentially chill from the intellectual concept of single-color abstraction. I recently saw a news piece about how Starbucks uses round tables because they seem psychologically “less lonely” than square tables when people sit alone at them. I felt something similar about Morris’ circular canvases. There’s an inclusiveness that makes them seem welcoming. Even the soft ragged edges avoid a sharp demarcation between the viewer and the viewed.

Looking at these paintings, I recalled Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, essentially an extended meditation on what it is to be an African-American in a culture that denies its African-American borrowings. Just as Elvis Presley played the music of black bluesmen, Huckleberry Finn spoke a Southern black dialect, and Bill Clinton was our “first Black President” (a phrase Morrison coined), much of mainstream “white” culture has deep “black” roots. It is this same underlying texture that I felt Morris’ paintings brought to the surface, without rancor or separatism but with joy and inclusiveness.

Quentin Morris’ black paintings also made me think of Herman Melville’s use of whiteness in Moby-Dick. Just as Melville took the whiteness of the whale to mean almost everything in the universe, from the pall of death to the essence of purity, Morris makes a universe of blackness by evoking every negative, evil meaning, and turning them around to discover a beauty and a power in the African-American experience and how that experience shapes us all.

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