Kyle b. co., “Queer in the Black 3,” Ed. of 13 (2019), screenprint, acrylic on vellum, 23″ x 17.5″ Photos courtesy of the artists

The current rotation of exhibitions at Cove Street Arts offers a smorgasbord of very different sorts of artistic expressions and media. Two shows in particular – “Stay Black & Die” (through Nov. 26) and “Matt Blackwell: Worry Later” (through Dec. 3) – offer, respectively, thoughtful meditations on the interiority of the Black experience, and a decidedly eccentric view of humanity’s universal themes.

For curator Jordan Carey, the title “Stay Black & Die” aligns with the 1960s phrase “Stay Black,” which, he writes in the exhibition statement, “implies blackness is a more whole place for black people than defaulting to eurocentrism.” The works on view, then, are generally about how the artists situate themselves within their “Blackness.”

It’s introduced by three screen prints with acrylic on vellum by Kyle b. co., all called “Queer in the Black.” These are among the most poignant images in the show, each illustrating a Black boy’s face that floats within veil-like layers of patterns and objects that might signify the imposition of that Eurocentrism on Blackness. At least two wear powdered wigs, for example, a white gentleman’s colonial fashion accessory that symbolized status in the 18th century.

Textile patterns layered onto the prints are more ambiguous, representing either acanthus leaves (a common motif in classical – that is, Roman and Greek – antiquity) or tribal ikats. These patterns seem to be attempting to paper over the artist’s Blackness, while the wigs might suggest Black culture being forced to assimilate to white society’s norms.

But despite attempts to sublimate or obscure the subjects’ Blackness, it is nevertheless Blackness that emerges forcefully through all the veils. Not only are these faces the most dominant elements in these works, but they stare straight at the viewer – unapologetic, unsmiling and too wise for their age.

Jordan Carey, “Blue Kite,” tissue paper, wood, 30″ x 24″

Carey himself, a Bermudian designer and artist who attended Maine College of Art & Design, contributes various “kite” works. Employing collaged tissue paper over wood armatures, he creates genre scenes of African diasporic life: men sitting on a sofa, a grandmotherly figure in pearls, a young man in front of a trellis. The kite forms could emphasize the carefree nature of simple island life. But they also come with unavoidable associations – of freedom, flight, escape from earthly cares.


“Barber Chair” is a ready-made sculpture of sorts for which Carey collaborated with Daniel Minter and Maeta Mastani. Minter produced linoleum carvings of Afro picks and combs, scissors and various Black hairstyles, which Mastani printed on fabric in a kind of toile that upholsters the chair. Black hair has been a central issue in African diasporic identity, providing material for many artists – prominently among them Lorna Simpson and Chakaia Booker.

David Driskell, “Night Gardener” (2015), acrylic, oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″

On the walls around the chair are Minters prints from those linoleum carvings, but they are mixed with more charged images of shoes patterned with burning cityscapes (perhaps referencing riots sparked by outrage over injustice to African Americans, or thriving Black communities burned down or otherwise eviscerated). They also display quotidian allusions to shodding shoes, farming and culinary ingredients common to the cuisine of people of African descent (okra).

Aminata Conteh, “Two Halves Make a Whole,” nickel, 6.25″ x 5″ x 4.25

Aminata Conteh uses steel to weave vessels reminiscent of African basketry. The titles intimate diverse themes: from objects of affection – “Two Halves Make a Whole” and “Little One” – to more pointed critiques such as “This Is Not the Water of My People.” What the latter refers to is unclear (U.S. waters versus those off her ancestors’ Sierra Leone coast, the Middle Passage, contaminated waters of poor Black communities?). But what is tremendously affecting about them is a kind of tender presence they exude with their soft, pliable organic forms and the ability to hold them in the palm of one’s hand, which gives them an almost talismanic spirit.

Another Bermudian, Jayde Gibbons, offers a paean to Gombey, a performance art banned by slave masters on the island that evolved as a form of protest. Her photographs, in crisp, saturated color, depict a woman tattooed with the word “ART” and a man wearing a traditional Gombey mask striking various poses, both alone and together.

These are an interesting contrast to the black-and-white photography of Sean Alonzo Harris on the opposite wall, drawn from his Kennedy Park series. This chronicle of a Portland neighborhood is already freighted, as it represents a community that cannot afford the pleasures of the gentrification bordering it (pricey breweries, yoga studios, coffee bars). But because the photographs mostly feature young kids, they are even more touching. Though some of the faces are smiling, Harris captures an astonishing array of other, sharper emotions: wariness, longing, inertia.

There’s plenty more, including works by venerable painters David Driskell and Reggie Burrows Hodges and Anastasia Warren’s ceramics.



The title work of “Worry Later” tells us a few things about Matt Blackwell: that he loves music (it’s the name of a Thelonious Monk song), that he is a master of color and light, that he can make the commonplace look grand (it measures 55 by 64 inches), and that he has an irreverent sense of humor (the image depicts a car in the woods being steadily snowed in and seems to say, “We’ll figure out how to get it out tomorrow”).

There is something about Blackwell’s paintings that indicates he’s having way too much fun, while at the same time tackling classic themes with corrosive wit. Consider “North Country,” named after Bob Dylan’s “North Country Blues,” a song about the closing of an iron ore mine and the human devastation in its wake. There he is, the miner of the lyrics, in the center of the painting. And there is his long-suffering wife in a pink gown playing a violin against a star-studded night sky, perhaps in happier times. Too obvious?

Look again. On the left of the canvas are a half dozen Donald Trump scalps raining down from the sky over a car painted red, white and blue. A sign with directional pointers tells us we’re at a crossroads. The stick-like figures feel almost rendered by a child and the colors are bright. Slowly a tension dawns between the hopelessness of the painting and the apparently optimistic palette and innocence of the figures.

We understand that Trump, like so many presidents before him, has once again abandoned the working class despite his promise to “Make America Great Again.” At almost 6 feet tall, it suddenly takes on the characteristic of a scathing indictment. It is a political work disguised in candy colors and idealized imagery (the Trump scalps notwithstanding).

And that’s what is most astonishing about Blackwell’s work. We are seduced by the sunny hues and scrappy, almost comical figures. But when we look more closely, we see they deal with the great themes creative minds have wrestled with in ancient myth, literature, music and painting. Blackwell’s technique seduces us, unwittingly, into considering life’s major conundrums.


Matt Blackwell, “Calypso & Odysseus” (2012-2021), oil on canvas, 60″ x 72″

On the idea of home and belonging we get “Calypso and Odysseus,” a story lifted from Homer’s Odyssey. For seven years, the nymph Calypso tempted Odysseus with the promise of immortality. Yet he longed for home so ceaselessly that she couldn’t hold him on her island. The foreground of the painting is all magical magenta sea and tempting maidens. Odysseus and his men look ragged and tired. But on one ray of the sun that rises in the distance is the journeyer’s adoring wife, Penelope, awaiting his return.

At times Blackwell’s work can recall George Condo’s naughtiness. “More Banjo?” seems particularly lascivious. Other times it can be sweet, such as “Pan In Love,” which shows the smitten god of the wild and of rustic music looking longingly at a nymph as a huge heart blossoms from his head.

Matt Blackwell, “Ophelia” (2022), oil on canvas, 30″ x 58″

Tragic love gets its due in “Whiskey River” – a title that refers to Willie Nelson’s ballad of a man abandoned by his lover (on the left of the work) and driven to drink (on the right) – and in “Ophelia,” about William Shakespeare’s doomed heroine who, tormented by madness, drowned herself. Here, cleverly, she floats under the waters of a Maine landscape.

Some works have religious over-tones. “Star Man Earth Woman” recalls an Annunciation scene. In its near abstraction, “That’s the Story” teasingly gives us almost no information. Yet cruciform shapes seem to intimate Calgary and the martyrdom of Christ. And the biblical source material of “Tower of Babel” seems straightforward.

None of this is a depth you’d expect to dive into from what initially looks almost like a series of fairy tales painted in perky hues. Even “Pale Rider,” a song (and painting) about the Grim Reaper, sports canary yellow, turquoise, powder pink, a sun, a black-eyed Susan and a heart. “Worry Later” confirms the Pownal-based Blackwell as one of Maine’s most distinctive and interesting painters.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: 

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