Jonathan Green lives and works today as an artist and collector in Charleston. But he grew up in the small Gullah community of Gardens Corner, South Carolina, and it's from there that his inspiration springs. Peopled by the descendants of ex-slaves, the Gullah communities of the Lowcountry still enshrine West African art and traditions.
For Vibrant Vision, Green and his curator, Richard Weedman, selected paintings, drawings and sculpture from his collection that colorfully portray truths of the African American experience. The Crealdé and Hannibal Square galleries pack a powerful one-two punch, knocking out the myth that no one buys art: Green and Weedman buy art, and lots of it. This bifurcated exhibition shows us a tiny fraction of the amazing work they've amassed over the last 40 years.
The Jenkins Gallery at Crealdé's main campus, a simple square room, is highlighted by Afro-Cuban artist Reynier Llanes' "The Revelation," an allegorical Madonna and child revealed to three men in a fragile little boat. Arrayed around this mythopoetic Caribbean scene are works by Romare Bearden, William Sylvester Carter and Ernest Crichlow, veteran WPA artists, among others. Most work by these masters dates from the peak of their careers. Bearden's 1988 "Dockside Market," for example, is a watercolor in his late Caribbean style, showing aquatic blues and greens framing soft black faces around the dock.
In contrast, Hale Woodruff's severe black-and white linocut "Returning Home" is a slice of 1930s African American social realism: Between haphazard shanties, a tired man ascends a rickety staircase. Green and Weedman's collection shines a light upon scenes like this. Black artists, nearly invisible in the major museums, are here revealed, working with the simple scenes of life as well as some of the more uncomfortable truths of injustice and poverty.
At the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, the second floor gallery extends the show with works by still more artists. Jacob Lawrence's "The Capture" is a poignant silkscreen print of the capture of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture: slumped astride a white horse, defeated, roped to his captors. Lawrence's paintings depict many epic struggles of African Americans and here, in this smaller room, this one feels somehow larger than life.
Green's paintings of his Gullah roots hold their own among these giants. His "Fruit Pickers" is semi-abstract, with deep colors and a thick, brushy texture conveying a certain strength and dignity in the working adult and child figures, a depth of feeling showing through the scene. Artists like Green, who also collect, express their vision beyond the canvas.
Green and Weedman's collection comprises works of great beauty – work that extends history's reach into uncomfortable corners of the past. Art delivers truth to the brain quickly, and a bit about the past is delivered through these artists. In these times where truth seems elusive, these exhibits let you see a little bit of it for yourself.