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Drawing from black experiences with caricature, portraiture

Boston artist Anthony Young uses traditional methods to illustrate racism’s human toll

Anthony Young's "2019" places the Mexican cartoon character Memín Pinguín in a dark scene.Anthony Young

The conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, who examines the invisibility of people of color in America, last year titled an exhibition with James Baldwin’s quote “to be a Negro in this country is really … never to be looked at.”

Anthony Young, an emerging Boston artist, works in Ligon’s footsteps, using traditional mediums and genres to tackle the problem. In his show at A R E A, he uses caricature to exemplify blinding stereotypes, and portraiture to rectify invisibility.

In “2019,” a fiery, expressionistic painting, Young places Memín Pinguín, a Mexican cartoon character who resembles Little Black Sambo, dazed among fallen bodies. It’s as if he’s the guy shooters aimed at, and not the real people who died. Sadly, the cartoon survives.


Layering many figures into one in “Candlelight Vigil,” Young paints a man with candles crossing the Massachusetts Avenue bridge. He’s half realist, half a cartoon, with several limbs and two heads — a black man compelled to lug stereotypes around with him.

Anthony Young's "Candlelight Vigil."Anthony Young

Young’s device of slicing and layering many into one has chilling effect in composite portraits. He depicts men and boys killed by police violence, and transgender black women murdered in the last year. The titles of these works catalog the names and ages of the dead.

“They Have Names III: Emmett Till 14, Mike Brown 18, Sean Bell 23, Jon Ferrell 24, Rumain Brisbon 34, Terence Crutcher 40” is painted with bleach on dyed black canvas and topped with black paint. The original ground upon which this world is made, in other words, is black and not white. The shifting portrait appears seared and encrusted, as if bearing traces of violence.

An image from Anthony Young's "They Have Names" series.Anthony Young

Other works in the “They Have Names” and “Say Their Names” series are drawn or painted traditionally, with vivid features. Several faces come together and pull apart. These pieces have a Cubist fracture and jumble, but the anchoring details of careful portraiture reveal their subjects. Young doesn’t tear them apart. He knits them together, underlining the cumulative impact of their violent deaths and pointing to the rot racism sows.



At A R E A, 460 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 2. www.area.gallery

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.