By Alec Clayton
“It’s fabulous to be Black – celebrate it. It’s fabulous to be any color under the sun – again celebrate it. That’s what brings back dignity to each human being.” This was written by artist Sandra Bocas for the occasion of her inclusion of the exhibition “Closer” at the Leonor R. Fuller Gallery at South Puget Sound Community College. Her paintings are a celebration of color, as are paintings by the other two artists in this show: Rene Westbrook and Travis Johnson. All three were included in the show “Futures Rising: A Celebration of Black Artists in the Olympia Community” at SPSCC last October.
Westbrook’s paintings—predominantly small works in acrylic on paper and one group of six mixed media paintings that hang like scrolls from wooden dowels—are a celebration of life, love and family. They are colorful and joyful, sweet and sentimental. The sunshine in Westbrook’s “Sunny Day” comes from behind and to the side like a setting sun painting a halo on the edges of three swimmers standing on a beach in bright red bikinis. Below them in more muted blues are the silhouettes of two trees which appear as a night scene in contrast with the bright sunny scene in the top half of the painting. The contrast between the muted and more intense areas makes each more prominent.
Westbrook’s group of six mixed-media paintings have titles like “Dream Girl” and ‘BLM.” There are many photographs and printed words collaged into them, along with wooden Scrabble pieces spelling out the titles and other words, and pieces of jigsaw puzzles. In the main, these works are decorative and lighthearted; but there are also some heavy themes highlighted by words such as “murder” and “kill.” One gets the impression that she is celebrating the resilience of Black lives in the face of bigotry and brutality.
Oddly satisfying color and subtle texture give Bocas’s haunting portrait heads satisfying dimensions, not readily noticeable upon a first glance. As with many of her painted faces, the eyes of “Brightness of Beige” stare directly at the viewer. The pinkish beige face and black shadows around the eyes give the face a mask-like quality. “He Black Till He Blue” is a sad blue face that plays on the double meaning of black and blue. The peach and pink background colors beautifully complement the colors in the face. A favorite is “Pink Bikini,” which is more red than pink. The sad, differently-sized eyes, the luminous colors and swirling texture of the blue hair give this one sparkle.
Johnson’s art—three large and imposing paintings—dominate the gallery space even though they take up much less wall space than the others. They are powerful, gritty and perhaps frightening for some viewers, like bastard children of de Kooning, and Chicago Imagists, a.k.a. the Hairy Who. His paintings combine the figurative and the abstract. His figures can be realistic and fierce and cartoonish.
A gallery statement says, “Symbols and icons are important in his work as they evoke multiple narratives, meanings, and shared points of view. They speak to the ancient act of mark-making as a way of communicating stories about self and identity.”
This exhibition can be viewed virtually on the gallery’s website, or in person by appointment.
“Closer” paintings by Sandra Bocas, Travis Johnson and Rene Westbrook
Noon to 6 p.m., Monday-Friday, through March 19;
Artist talk and live stream 5-7 p.m., March 12
The Gallery at South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Rd. SW, Olympia