“A Light in Harlem,” the late summer exhibition at Richard J Demato Fine Arts in Sag Harbor, featured an impressive series of new oil paintings by artist Kadir Nelson. His large- and small-scale figurative scenes depict both historic and imagined moments from various aspects of daily life during the Jazz Age.
An esteemed illustrator—two-time Caldecott honoree and repeat Coretta Scott King book award recipient—the prolific artist recently penned the illustrated biography Nelson Mandela (HarperCollins, 2013), and created the original cover artwork for Canadian rapper Drake’s 2013 album Nothing Was the Same.
Nelson’s sumptuous streetscapes here echo the modern urban realism of Edward Hopper—as in the deep green steel of the railway car cutting crosswise through both imposing civic buildings and the picture plane, to deliver raucous New Arrivals; in the Sullivanesque residential buildings that frame the still-sleepy newsie in Morning Post; the stark streetcar lines receding into the horizon behind the squarely mounted officer in Harlem Equus; and the gently curved gas street lamp softly hovering over the shoulder of the church-going couple in Sunday. However, the greater prominence of Nelson’s subjects within these scenes reflects the influence of WPA muralist and social realist painter Charles Wilbert White—in both compelling renderings of notable persons (Louis Armstrong; the dancer Josephine Baker in Forbidden Fruit) and in empathetic portraits of unknown individuals (Red Bone), who seem almost to transcend the trappings of any historical era.
Nelson’s interest in narrative, and in representing the vibrancy of the African American community and its history more broadly, can be seen in the glistening, upturned faces of the four sheepish boys in Hole in the Roof, which also draws pictorial inspiration from the playfully expressive style of Norman Rockwell. So too the quiet workaday appointment—complete with carefully arranged grooming equipment—of Barbershop, which brings to life a quotidian practice not often granted aesthetic contemplation within contemporary American painting.