Theater & art


In Rico Gatson’s paintings, abstraction and history meet

“Panel Painting” series in “Power Lines”
Heather McGrath
“Panel Painting” series in “Power Lines”

Rico Gatson’s commanding paintings at Samson pulse with geometric abstraction, but they’re not all exclusively abstract. He builds some around archival images related to African-American history, and color-codes his bold patterns with sociopolitical meaning: black and white, or the red, green, and black associated with African nationalism, punched up with yellow. Colors beam out, but the black is roughly textured, sometimes tough, sometimes shiny: It pulls us in.

Many works are completely abstract. Gatson’s “Panel Painting” series leans against the wall, each more than 8 feet tall and less than a foot wide, each thrumming with a different crackling pattern. Some have a Modernist chastity; in others, colors busily bristle, buzz, and overlap.

The paintings accrue into a percussive, gritty, and celebratory symphony. Gatson achieves a similar effect in “Untitled (Target, Ripples, and Zig Zags),” a rhythmic grid alternating black-and-white patterns with colorful ones.


Imagery and text can argue with or outweigh abstraction, but here they take up the dance. The black, block-lettered words “Wonder and Light” are so organic to the pattern in one of the panel paintings that you might miss them.

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In “Untitled (Three Diamonds),” concentric, black-and-white diamonds surround three black-and-white archival images: enslaved black women, picking through cotton; a street view of the 1965 Watts riots, smoke billowing; and Black Panthers at a 1968 rally to free Huey Newton, a founder of the group, imprisoned for killing a policeman.

With the brash pattern around them, the grainy images read like distant history. Yet they anchor the painting; the diamonds reverberate from them, as if the pictures were stones dropped into a pond, setting off splashes and ripples.

All of Gatson’s abstractions echo with history. Like society itself, his patterns react to specific images and events. Or they tumble along a generation removed, not ready for the next big news, because who ever is? But they will respond to and integrate it, because society always does.

RICO GATSON: Power Lines

At Samson, 450 Harrison Ave., through July 17. 617-357-7177,

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