Visual Art

Julianna Thibodeaux

Black Pearls: Our Legacy... Past and Present

Garfield Park Art Center

Through March

When it comes to artistic output, we hold different institutions and venues to different standards; and if we don't, we should. You can't expect a community art center to mount an exhibition of the same caliber as the Indianapolis Museum of Art. When the new Garfield Park Arts Center opened its doors to the exhibition Black Pearls: Our Legacy... Past and Present, I viewed it in the context of its surroundings - and Garfield Park is strikingly lovely, even in winter - but more importantly, in the context of a fledgling institution looking to find its voice and make an impact.

The Garfield Park Art Center is a gathering place for art and arts classes and, as evidenced by Black Pearls, exhibitions. The park itself is home to the Garfield Park Conservatory and Sunken Gardens, among the city's cultural jewels that are considered off the beaten path in their just south of the loop setting - and the Art Center gives an even greater impetus for community participation in things cultural.

Black Pearls, though, is a mixed bag - or to borrow the metaphor, a mixed string. Promoted as showcasing Indianapolis' "finest black artists and photographers," I'm fairly certain it doesn't exactly meet its claims on a comprehensive level, although it does suggest the greater possibilities. There are some well-known names here, and some fine works of art; but I know there are many more among the city's black artists.

Instead, we have a curious mixture of expressions, styles, and levels of artistic ability: Jay Parnell is one of the city's well-known artists, who used to show at the former J. Martin Gallery, and his charcoal drawing "Bullets" is characteristic of his brooding, well-developed figurative style. Anthony Radford's "African Holocaust" (collage) is another strong piece, although dated (it's signed '94); Fred Shields also contributes some characteristically strong work, but also dated; and we see two haunting photographs by Robert Evans III, both of which, if I'm not mistaken, were recently exhibited in the Primary Colours retrospective last month at the Stutz Gallery.

Among the most evocative of the show's offerings, Kendra Washington's sculptures are beautiful and yet disturbing: two ceramic figures titled "Visual Miscommunication," standing about toddler high, are adorned in a swirl of darker toned acrylics, their mouths mutely closed, their arms blending into their sides, standing in nests of torn cloth.

Another intriguing contribution to the mix, "Pompey Hawkins: The Tuskegee Experiment," a series of black-and-white photographs hanging on the gallery's main wall, depict the Tuskegee airman smiling in uniform.

By no means are these the only pieces worth mentioning. Other artists known in the city are included here, such as D. DelReverda-Jennings, Glenn Walker and George Murff.

Such omnibus exhibitions are necessarily tricky. Someone has to make a judgment call on which artists are our "finest," and then someone has to choose the work - making decisions about whether older work should be hung, and how many works should be shown by each artist. And what to do about the art that doesn't really stand up to the rest? I don't envy the curator who has to make such choices, but such choices inevitably must be made if such an institution aspires to achieve a consistent level of quality exhibitions. I applaud the Garfield Park Arts Center and its mother ship, Indy Parks (and the City of Indianapolis), for building the center to begin with - one hopes it will continue to blossom with creative expression of all kinds. And as with all fledgling efforts, this one deserves our support as it strives to find its own voice.

Black Pearls: Our Legacy... Past and Present is on view at the Garfield Park Arts Center on the Garfield Park campus, 2332 Conservatory Drive. Call 327-7066 or visit www.indyparks.org for more information.

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