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Visitors to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center can now view a remarkable and historic cultural achievement. Joseph Holston’s “Color in Freedom: Journey Along the Underground Railway” consists of 30 large paintings and one large diptych, along with a number of smaller paintings on paper, etchings and pencil works on paper. Evidently, these pieces were produced in 2008, and taken together, the work bears witness to a deeply sustained artistic concentration portraying an epic historical movement.
The word “movement” with regard to Holston’s work takes on the additional meaning of musical compositions, as in the parts of a symphonic work or an extensive jazz phrasing. There remains a developed history of jazz painting that ranges from realistic portrayal to extreme Expressionistic and Surrealistic styles. Holston’s very remarkable gesture here applies his own development of an advanced musical painting style to the portrayal of figures caught up in the creation—or re-creation, if you will, of their own history.
Both Holston’s compositional lines and color palettes have a kinship with rhythm and tone (no pun intended). Virtually all of these paintings show some kind of dynamic interplay of light and dark tonalities. The range of this interplay varies, taking on a key role in the narratives shown by the individual pieces and by their collectivity. Even a piece as difficult as “Middle Passage” (acrylic on canvas) shows gold and white tonalities connecting the figures chained in the ship. This may seem unconventional with respect to some portrayals of the Middle Passage events, but Holston can justify such a gesture. Even if the figures who are involved may not perceive such light, the viewer may perceive a kind of grace of survival.
Holston remarks, “In every canvas, light or the contrast between light and dark means hope, even in the bleakest situations.” The individual paintings are narrative vignettes, and the movements within and among these vignettes provide great emotional impact.
Holston has divided the larger group into four “movements, like a great jazz or symphonic score, with a definite beginning, middle and climax. Music is integral to my art.” (Holston, artist’s statement). His first movement, “The Unknown World” begins with “Protection”, an image of a king, representing history in Africa, not yet interrupted. The second movement, “Living in Bondage—Life on the Plantation” contains not only images of oppression, but also images of affirmation. The third movement, “Journey of Escape”, dramatically moves from images of terror to images of refuge. The fourth movement, “Color in Freedom”, lends its name to the whole exhibit. This group begins with the diptych “Freedom Realized” (mixed media). This last group is filled with a lovely, dynamic images of renewal, and it includes a musical painting, “Magnificent Melody” (mixed media) that shows a figure playing a flute.
Holston’s work fascinates both for his evolved painterly style and for the way his work embraces other media. The terms “abstract” and “Cubist” have been applied to his work. A simple example may be found in the way he paints hands, which tend toward black or off-white ovals of “Cubist” representation. The “abstract” tendency follows a kind of Expressionist representation. In “Magnificent Melody”, a blue spiral shows the melody itself. However, in “Contemplation of Despair” (mixed media), a black spiral represents something altogether different. It’s probably fair to say that these “abstract” elements have a representational role relative to the paintings in which they appear. It’s also likely that this kind of representation is more existential or spiritual.
“Promising Portal” (acrylic on canvas) sparkles like a jewel. We’ve already seen these works’ connection to music, but I believe they are also connected to the novel form of literature. Holston’s choices for subjects are wise and difficult, conveying great emotional impact. His use of detail brings an existential fullness. I found myself reminded of Alexandre Dumas’ story Queen Margot, a fat historical novel full of both dramatic and wonderful vignettes of culminating only in the survival of his subjects Margot and Henry. However, history itself tells more, and we now have a black president in Barack Obama. See this show.
“Color in Freedom: Journey Along the Underground Railroad”
Runs through November 30
Bessie Smith Cultural Center
200 E. MLK Blvd.