Once upon a time, in the galaxy of my youthful imagination...
I take solace in stories. Faithful readers of my tumblr blog, you know this. You know that I've been in constant search of stories and characters to keep me company through the good times and the bad. Because of this preoccupation (obsession, maybe) with story, I was particularly interested in remarks made recently by two painters, Nyame Brown and Hilary Harkness, about how narrative figures into their art practices.
Part of, not apart from
I had the opportunity to hear Nyame Brown speak at ALS 27 in Greenpoint. He emphasized how important it is to him, as an African-American artist, to be part of the art historic continuum and not apart from it. What results is nuanced work that explores contemporary themes such as the conflation of hip hop and art while drawing from the works of masters like Titian to inform Brown's compositions. Brown doesn't stop there. He also brings the African-American oral tradition into the mix by riffing on and updating characters such as B'rer Gator and that tall tale hero, John Henry.
For the Afrofuturists out there, you'll be interested in Brown's update on John Henry. This series visualizes a post-black world, which includes exploration of what it means to pair Africans with technology. Brown's sense of expansive possibility is partially informed by his love of comic books - one of the first places he saw himself reflected back in popular culture. The question of building a black identity in world of diverse black experiences is propelling Brown and his work, including a series on Afronauts in Space, into the future.
As demonstrated by the current show up at the Studio Museum of Harlem - The Shadows Took Shape - an exhibition that explores contemporary art through the lens of Afrofuturist aesthetics, Brown is not alone. There may be other Afronauts out there searching for the perfect beat...
Painting for her younger self
Like Brown, the narratives in Hilary Harkness's work are tied to a larger visual culture. During her recent talks at ALS 27 and the New York Studio School, audience members were quick to identify art historic influences such as Bosch and Breughel, particularly in Harkness's visually striking cross-sections as well as historic references such as World War II battleships. Richard Scarry was a key literary influence, in Harkness's young life and for someone like me who spent hours poring over what Lowly the Worm and others did all day, the connection was clear and compelling.
In a Harkness cross-section there is story after story - more than enough to keep even the most attentive viewer captivated for repeat viewings. Given all of the figures that Harkness not only has to paint, but that she has to keep track of narratively, what struck me about her remarks was her interest in the technical aspects of telling a story, namely a written story, and seeing how that understanding translates onto her paintings.
Harkness remarked that at times she was painting stories for her younger self in order to affirm her power as a female and in order to bring lesbians, who had been largely invisible to her as she came out, into being. This is an impulse I can understand. In college seminars, at cocktail parties, and writers conferences, I'm the broken record whining about wanting to see and read new stories. Stories that put my experience as a preppy, slightly neurotic, black, lesbian front and center are especially desired.
And while the world of television, particularly thanks to people like Shonda Rhimes and yes, Ilene Chaiken, has been enriched in that regard, I know there's room for more - especially in literature.
And so, if you've been wondering why my posts have been sporadic as of late, I've been off working on a novel. Like Brown and Harkness, I'm telling the story that I've been wanting to read. How will it begin? How will it end? Will Don Draper deem it too nostalgic?
Painting from Nyame Brown's John Henry Series
Drawing from Nyame Brown's Afronauts in Space Series - 'African Inspired Technology'
Heavy Cruisers, Hilary Harkness (2004)
Red Sky in the Morning, Hilary Harkness (2011)