Every artist conjures work out of a primordial inner soup that has as ingredients personal identity, cultural context, and art itself, with its ever-evolving mesh of ideas, forms, and mediums. Two shows at Boston University examine the work of African-American painters as they balance those ingredients: Herbert Gentry, who came of age when abstract expressionism was at its height, and contemporary artist Cullen Washington Jr.
“Making Connections: The Art and Life of Herbert Gentry” at Boston University Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery deftly lays out the trajectory of Gentry’s peripatetic career as he set up studios in Paris, Scandinavia, and New York.
Never a lonely painter in a garret, Gentry sought community everywhere he went. He opened a jazz club and gallery in Paris. He joined an international collective, CoBrA (for Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, although the group went far beyond those cities). In New York, he settled at the Chelsea Hotel, a clubhouse for artists of all stripes.
Gentry’s paintings reflect the sustenance he received from community (he died at 84 in 2003). His abstractions swarm with floating figures and faces emerging from tangled networks of color. This theme remains consistent through years of work, although the canvases jumble with more and more people as time goes on.
He handled paint and color with brio. “Dance Turquoise,” with white and red figures bobbling against a luminous blue ground, is a balm to the eye. But the works often forsake tension for celebration. They lack edge. Many of them feel like a crowd.
They don’t stand up to the paintings and prints of some of his friends, which curator Rachel Tolano includes for context — Corneille’s comically strident lithograph of a gawky rooster; Beauford Delaney’s untitled, gorgeously tactile layering of breathy pastel tones; Romare Bearden’s jagged, blocky print of two figures in a landscape, “Carolina Memory (Tidings).”
Gentry and Bearden resisted a 1970s trend among African-American artists toward a black aesthetic, although Bearden’s work could ring with such themes, as it does here. Not Gentry’s.
Politics and history need not influence an artist, although art history inevitably will. Gentry’s paintings spring from Cubism, a modernist concern with primitivism — a dicey old term that we can now see encompasses anything outside the realm of Western art — and abstract expressionism. In the end an artist’s only responsibility is to his own muse. Gentry’s led him away from conflict, and toward community.
Washington’s works on large, unstretched canvases at BU’s 808 Gallery, show wonderful daring and grit. They shuffle space, from claustrophobic interiors to expansive nothingness, from depth to surface, with abandon. They claw and tear at traditional boundaries. They simmer with pop imagery, then give way to pure abstraction. There’s something protean about them; they feel as if he’s ground them onto the canvas from the grime and detritus he’s swept off the studio floor.
The earlier pieces rely more on cultural references. “Dyno-mite in My Room” swims around an image of Jimmie Walker as his clownish character J.J. Evans in the 1970s sitcom “Good Times.” It’s a sooty scene, with Walker’s sneering face arising from darkness made of charcoal dust. Nearby, a small drawing of a toilet and sink, a photo of a tub, make the space seem cramped.
It hangs near the more recent “Blue,” a vertical abstraction smeared with white paint and smoky with charcoal dust, edging audaciously out of its rectangular form. A blue tarp spills onto the floor like a snarled welcome mat, and the structure on canvas — made with collage, tape, paint, and more — looks like an interior we might step into, even as it’s cut up, ragged, and mussed along its ugly, fascinating surface.
Washington grapples with scraps of the cultural landscape of his youth, which may have informed his identity as a black kid, in the same way he tussles with materials and form — piecing them together in ways that contract and expand before your eyes. Maybe now he’s less in the thrall of what formed him as a youth, and more faithful to the endless tensions he can explore in abstraction. Whatever he’s working on, he’s pushing limits, and fascinating to watch.
“The Lightning Speed of the Present,” a smart group show put together by curator Lynne Cooney at 808 Gallery, focuses on artists whose work springs from impulses toward keeping diaries, archives, and collections. For all those accumulations, the show highlights the ephemeral — how quickly moments pass, how gossamer the thread that ties us to any experience.
Of particular note: Johannesburg artist Dineo Seshee Bopape’s odd and delicate installation “Things Are Closer Than They Appear,” which takes into consideration the gallery’s history as a Cadillac showroom. Bopape spreads sparkly, ethereal materials — gold leaf, iridescent fabric, mirrors — here and there, like bright traces of sweet memory. Yet among these wisps, she arrays gray bricks and clusters of white clay that look like bone or porcelain, metaphors for building and for breaking down.
Most of the work (including pieces by August Ventimiglia, Rachel Perry Welty, and Ben Berlow) has a similar quiet, insinuating affect — here now with compelling urgency, gone tomorrow.
For more information:
Making Connections: The Art and Life of Herbert Gentry
At: Boston University Art Gallery
at the Stone Gallery,
855 Commonwealth Ave.,
through March 30. 617-353-3329, www.bu.edu/art
Cullen Washington Jr.: The Land Before Words
The Lightning Speed of the Present
At: 808 Gallery, Boston University,
808 Commonwealth Ave.,
through March 30. 617-353-3371, www.bu.edu/cfaCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.