Art review: At Evolve the Gallery, civil rights-inspired works by African Americans

05/01/2014 4:00 PM

04/30/2014 7:09 PM

“Spiral: American Masters” at Evolve the Gallery in historic Oak Park pays tribute to a collective of African American artists who came together at the time of the historic 1963 March on Washington.

Summoned by Hale Woodruff and meeting at the studio of Romare Bearden, the group of 15 artists evolved into a kind of think tank, examining their relationship to the civil rights movement and the shifting landscape of American art, culture and politics.

The group – Charles Alston, Emma Amos, Romare Bearden, Calvin Douglass, Perry Ferguson, Reginald Gammon, Felrath Hines, Alvin Hollingsworth, Norman Lewis, William Majors, Richard Mayhew, Earl Miller, Merton D. Simpson, Hale Woodruff and James Yeargans – existed for a short time only, exhibiting once in 1965, but left an indelible mark on American art history.

Works by all but two of the artists, Douglass and Ferguson, are on view in the Evolve exhibition, which was organized and curated by Brady Charles Blakeley and A. Michelle Blakeley. The two have put together an important and groundbreaking show that will travel for two years and is accompanied by an informative and beautiful catalog.

Bearden is undeniably the most famous of the group, having had major retrospectives at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The show includes two of his works: a sprightly watercolor of a palm tree and “The Wishing Pond,” a lush Matisse-like lithograph of a reclining figure in a landscape with a pond that has the feeling of the collages for which he is best known.

But there are powerful examples of works by other members of the Spiral Group, most on loan from distinguished private collections. In addition, there is a large sampling of vibrant, emotively colored abstract works with landscape implications by Mayhew, who is considered by some the old master of the group. These recent works are available for purchase as are works by Amos (the only woman in the group), Miller and Simpson.

Mayhew is also represented by works from the 1950s and ’60s on loan from collectors, including two marvelous crow quill drawings and a sombre, Ryder-like landscape with a figure, titled “Through the Field at Sleepy Hollow.” The gallery will present an artist’s talk by Mayhew on May 17.

Woodruff, who was instrumental in gathering the group together, is represented by a number of powerful linocuts of figures and structures, including the stunning expressionist composition “Trusty on a Mule.” Gammon, who was influenced by jazz music, is represented by two stunning etchings, one a mezzotint, focusing on musicians, and a solid academic drawing of a male figure.

Majors, whose texturally rich etchings and vibrant collage, “Gestation II,” are among the highlights of the show, had work exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but is an unfamiliar name today – as are many of those included in this fine exhibition.

Miller, whose work ranges from the touching family scene in “The Garden” to blithe and colorful collages done at the time the group came together, is also a name unfamiliar to me though his works are included in more than 40 major museum, university and corporate collections.

That is the case with many of the Spiral Group artists, though their works are sought after by collectors of African American art and they had a profound effect on the dialogue among African American artists in the 1960s. They deserve to be better known and documented in the mainstream of art history. The Blakeleys have done a great service to the community by bringing this show to fruition after two long years of work. Be sure to see it.

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