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click to enlarge James Britton Gantt, “The Musicians,” gift of the artist to Thomas Hart Benton

James Britton Gantt, “The Musicians,” gift of the artist to Thomas Hart Benton

Things aren’t all smiley at these two shows of paintings by and of black Americans 

This fall, exhibits at the Museum of Art – DeLand are putting black lives front and center. A drive to DeLand is rewarded with two rich exhibits in the Museum's main facility – Purvis Young: Art of Street, and an ethnographic collection of West African tribal art that has enormous spiritual power – and viewers can then stroll down Woodland Avenue, an authentic college-town sidewalk, to the museum's Downtown Galleries to take in Painted Black: The John Surovek Collection, which depicts African-Americans from pre-Civil War America to contemporary society. This timely trio of shows interprets and documents the black experience in America's colossal story.

Purvis Young was an epic artist, a sort of samurai-poet of Miami's Overtown neighborhood who died in 2010. He was a street artist whose paintings often incorporated found objects from the street – broken furniture, telephone bills, folders. Young took the sensory disorder of the tropical street and combined it with sophisticated references to Rembrandt, El Greco and other masters. (Public libraries do, after all, benefit our culture.)

Urgent squiggles mark his 1995 "Crowd Scene," painted on a packing crate panel. Faces are not detailed, yet the spacing of the figures, their stances and the lighting around them capture a darkly ominous emotional essence. Self-effacing and self-taught, Young mostly disliked publicity. He stuck with his roots and has gained a reputation, grown since his death, as an art star expressing the emptiness of the inner city, using symbolic angels and demons in his work to oversee the grand urban scene.

African-American subjects are also the focus of the John H. Surovek collection, as seen by mostly white artists across the last two centuries. Predictably, perhaps, the faces start out smiling. The well-dressed black man in William Bromley's 1855 "White Slave" poses jauntily while a white boy shines his shoes (a startling role reversal?). Smiling and singing families in their homes are painted by Lilly Martin Spencer in her 1896 "Blind Faith." White painters projected Orwellian happiness on the faces of their black subjects in the older parts of this collection, but the forced smile doesn't last.

The incredible depth of this Florida collector's art lets the smile fade, with African-Americans hard at work in the Depression, on through the Civil Rights movement, up to Stephen Scott Young's "Green Eyes" (1988) ... not smiling at all. A sullen girl, about 11, stands under a blue shutter, her forehead glistening in the sun. The true self of this girl is recedingly distant. Next to this portrait, Andrew Wyeth's 1978 "Sarita Daniels, Study for Thin as Vanity" is a portrait in profile of a magnificent woman, equally emotionally distant, her eyes slits, her dignity radiant.

We spoke briefly with George Bolge, director of the Museum of Art, about the choice to include a street artist in their permanent collection. "I personally met Young," Bolge said, "and immediately started supporting and acquiring his work. We selected Young's body of work due to his art's contribution to the contemporary urban experience." Bolge is showing these three exhibits just as America is examining a rainbow way forward, retiring visually provocative old flags and the knee-jerk reactions that go with them. We urgently need new images to accompany this exciting transition. This time, the smile should be genuine.

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