“Lynching,” a painting John Wilson made in Mexico in 1952, is a terrible, fluid image. At the center, a black man with a noose around his neck collapses, his body twisted. Enormous, faceless men in white robes stand behind him, gripping the rope and a bullwhip. It’s on view in the crisp, stirring exhibit “John Wilson: Mexico, 1950-1956” at Martha Richardson Fine Art.
Wilson, an African-American, had been making work about racial injustice for years. He had studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and worked in Fernand Léger’s studio in Paris, but he always aspired to go to Mexico and meet José Clemente Orozco, whose murals were powerful expressions of social activism. When he finally got there in 1950, Orozco had died, but Wilson found a community of African-American artists, including sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, who became his daughter’s godmother.
Wilson is now 90, living in Brookline, and still working. The Danforth Museum’s retrospective of his work opens Nov. 17.
The exhibit spells out Wilson’s aesthetic concerns as well as his social ones. As a student of Karl Zerbe at the Museum School, he was exposed to German Expressionism. Working alongside Léger, he explored geometric composition and Cubism. His own art grew lean and tautly formal, but has always been anchored by narrative and the figure.
“Lynching” and a second painting, “Mother and Child,” were made in association with a mural, “The Incident,” depicting a family witnessing the awful event. The mural has since been destroyed. “Mother and Child,” in which a woman clasps a baby, is a bit stiff; it doesn’t have the emotional drama of “Lynching.” But then there’s a lithograph, also titled “Mother and Child,” from that same year. Here, the woman’s eyes are grave as she glances nervously to one side, desperately gripping the squirming infant.
You can see Léger’s influence throughout the show, particularly in a lithograph and a painting, both dated 1951 and titled “Trabajador.” In these, Wilson depicts a bricklayer at work with his sharp, triangular spade. Geometry, in the form of the skeleton of a building going up, fills the background. Even the man, with his round hat and his big, steady, worker’s hands, is stylized with incisive forms and planes.
At a time when much of the art world was enraptured with abstraction, Wilson, like other African-American artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Allan Rohan Crite, stuck to narrative and figuration. They had stories that had to be told.
Surprises in common
“Approaching Volume,” a quirky and delightful exhibit at Gallery NAGA, works so well because the three artists — Joo Lee Kang, Masako Kamiya, and Nicole Chesney — have so little in common. There’s a surprise around every corner. The one thing the artists do share is an unusual approach to space and volume. What you would expect to be flat has unexpected depths or proportions.
Kang, an up-and-coming artist recently sprung from the Museum School’s joint program with Tufts University, starts with delicate drawings that are deceptively sweet: animals clustered in wreath and swag formations. Look closely, and you’ll see the critters are horribly deformed. Six-legged pigs, two-headed turtles. She has printed up a creep-tastic wallpaper over which these animals romp in a grid pattern. Then there’s “Chaos #7,” a paper sculpture covered with the winsome, monstrous beasts in two cyclonic forms that devilishly twist off the wall.
Chesney paints on glass backed by mirrors, creating an effect of endless, light-filled space, which she occasionally obscures with feathery brushstrokes, as in “Ever Farther (blue and white).” Kamiya, with her astute color sense, continues arduously building tiny stalks of dried paint over paper. These new works, such as “Lift,” conjure the sense of riding in a low-flying plane over a field of wildflowers.
A fourth artist up in the back room neatly fits the “Approaching Volume” bill. Martin Kline is an encaustic painter; he paints in hot, pigmented wax. Like Kamiya, he layers on his medium, making the work sculptural. In the dramatic “Vanitas,” he coaxes spiraling petals off the surface in white, gray, and black, rising toward the center. It’s a topographic effect — it looks lunar, or scorched, yet the comparisons to a delicate flower remain.
Hils, a man of steel
Jonathan Hils’s welded steel sculptures, now at the Suffolk University Art Gallery, are obsessive, airy things, built systematically out of hundreds of small metal rods into crisp forms and blob-like ones. With all their intricate lines and shadows, they seem to be as much about drawing as they are about sculpture. They often appear organic, and there’s always the sense of an underlying algorithm guiding their growth.
“Through” is shaped like a chestnut, flattened against the wall, with openings top and bottom. Its interlocking pattern draws the eye, wider and breathing at the center, tighter along the edges. It has the feeling of metal lace, but it also might be some type of medieval torture device. “Puff” roundly protrudes in many directions, lively as a jellyfish. Again, the medium makes a nifty tension with the form — steel, making a doozy of a soap bubble.