April 14, 2013

Art Review: 'Lines,' 'Figure' fortuitiously converge in Portland spaces


There is an exhibition of African-American book illustrators at the Museum of African Culture in Portland that includes multiple winners -- all Mainers -- of the prestigious Coretta Scott King Award.

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Drawing by Rohan Henry from “Lines Converge, Colors Dance.”

Courtesy photos

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“Malaga Man” by Daniel Minter, from “Go Figure”

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: Museum of African Culture, 13 Brown St., Portland

WHEN: Through June 28

HOURS: 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; noon to 4 p.m. Saturday

COST: $5; free for ages 5 and under

INFO: 871-7188; museumafricanculture.org 


WHERE: Greenhut Galleries, 146 Middle St., Portland

WHEN: Through April 27

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

INFO: 772-2693;


"Lines Converge, Colors Dance" is particularly interesting not only because it puts the work in a context of African roots, but because it puts local artist and MECA professor Daniel Minter on the national stage that he has earned as an illustrator.

Minter now seems to be everywhere. He's also featured in "Go Figure" at Greenhut Galleries in Portland and with an installation at Portland Trading Co. He was featured in Bruce Brown's print extravaganza "Breaking Boundaries" at the Portland Public Library earlier this year, and he has been in the news because of his Coretta Scott King Award.

"Mere illustration" is the kind of phrase that you might hear across post-war America to degrade this mode of art, but I think it's a mistake on the level of Mainers' betrayal of watercolor. (In the land of Marin, Homer, Hopper, the Wyeths and so many others, we -- friends, Mainers, countrymen -- should not come to bury watercolor, but to praise it.)

Until landscape painting took serious hold in France in the 19th century, painting -- led by religious and history painting -- was primarily in the service of illustration. (The major exception, though partial, was portraiture.) For centuries, the Church maintained absolute cultural hegemony, and art's purpose was to illuminate the Bible.

The echoes of religious art in contemporary painting are so omnipresent, they practically camouflage themselves. My favorite piece in "Go Figure," for example, is Joseph Nicoletti's "Susanna at the Baths," the Old Testament story in which the religious elders come upon the beautiful Susanna (Hebrew for "lily") bathing in her own yard.

Only this time, she's a recognizable Degas nude, so the encounter is between an older mentality (reactionary and bullying) and modern art (shocking and attractive, but pure and virtuous nonetheless).

A more common reference, illustrated by Allison Goodwin's haloed barista, ties the shows together. The joke about worshiping at the morning altar of coffee seems obvious, but the reference is art historical rather than religious per se.

At the Museum of African Art, Ashley Bryan, a true pioneer of African-American children's books who lives on Islesboro, matches the logic with a picture of Louis Armstrong holding a toddler in classic Madonna and child form, with a halo sun between them.

The Madonna and child genre opens the door to syncretistic imagery in African art, as the figures are also featured in a nearby 18th-century Ogbananjo spirit mask of the Igbo Tribe from what is now known as Nigeria. Comparing these two works opens the door on a fundamentally vast chapter of world history.

"Lines Converge, Colors Dance" is a handsome little show of 20 illustrations by Bryan, Minter and Portland-based Rohan Henry, whose drawings have a charming flare reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupery of "The Little Prince" fame.

While Bryan's 50-bird cut paper collage "Beautiful Blackbird" is the star of the show, Minter comes off as a particularly strong graphic artist with an edgy brilliance to his storytelling.

The images from "Ellen's Broom," for example, depict an Emancipation-era girl whose family, for the first time, can attend their own church. But her broom is a totem from a time when, by law, the Christian sacrament of marriage was denied to slaves.

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Additional Photos

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“Susanna at the Baths” by Joseph Nicoletti “from “Go Figure”

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“The Met” by Judy Taylor from “Go Figure”

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“Santa Barista” by Alison Goodwin from “Go Figure”

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Illustration from “Ellen’s Broom” by Daniel Minter, from “Lines Converge, Colors Dance.”

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A detail from the Minter-illustrated book “Ellen’s Broom,” from “Lines Converge, Colors Dance.”

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Illustrations by Ashley Bryan depicting a loving Louis Armstrong, from “Lines Converge, Colors Dance.”

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