HERO’S STORY: New works by Cullen Washington, Jr.
The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists is pleased to present
HERO’S STORY: New Works by Cullen Washington, Jr, an exhibition of contemporary mixed-media works exploring the interplay between popular media heroes and black masculinity. The exhibition extends from October 18, 2009 through January 10, 2010.
The exhibition is accompanied by a twenty-eight page illustrated catalogue. A conversation with the artist will be presented on Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
Click here to view selections from Hero's Story
Since the beginning of transatlantic slavery, black masculinity has been embattled, under attack for its resistance to enslavement and exploitation. Subject to systematic destruction and forceful repression, black manhood was incompatible with the commoditization inherent in chattel. Nor did the relentless subversion of black masculinity lift with the nominal passing of slavery and colonialism, but rather, the battle shifted more toward constructions of blackness within social imagery generated by advertising and media.
So powerful were these strategies of subversion that black men sometimes came to see themselves through these manipulations, accepting one-dimensional images of themselves. In the visual arts, exploration of this terrain is not new, thus when Cullen Washington undertook this turbulent theme, he needed strategies that were visually and conceptually new.
In HERO’S STORY, Washington examines black masculinity in the context of heroic narratives. Capitalizing on his fascination with dark tonalities, the irregularities of unstretched canvas and particularly visceral collaging, he introduces figurative and representational references that evoke an environment that is alternately urban and cosmic. The black male body, a central subject of objectification, stands at the junction of American historical identity and popular culture suggesting notions of the hero and the anti-hero. In either mode, Washington has sought to preserve autonomy, complexity and ambiguity as elements of black agency.
Dyno-mite in my room, for example, grows out of Washington’s own early fascination with the character JJ Evans from the popular 1970s television series Good Times. JJ was a kid in a struggling Chicago family who fancied himself popular with girls, always ready with a boast, and not above an occasional slight of hand that he called “finding things”. He became noted for his exclamation “Dyno-mite!” Full of himself, he was “good hearted” even if not always wise, and seldom at a loss for words to cast his predicament in the best light. He was an urban hero for teenage boys searching for themselves in a world of limited economic resources, where an outsized personality was an asset. Washington anchors the picture with a collaged image of JJ at its center. Nearby is a view into the bathroom suggesting the intimacy of the space, an intimacy indicated by other hints of the room interior, as well as pasted photographs and even a cigarette box. JJ ’s exuberance both inspired Washington, and gave his a larger than life heroism.
In Hulk Don’t Smash, Washington has counterpoised the green hero with a black urban giant who strides, muscles exposed, across his canvas dominating the street that falls away, a tree at one end and chain link fencing flanking the side. In this world of bicycles, graffiti, and high-rise buildings, might is positioned as a controlling force. One can easily pose questions of the utility of raw strength in today’s urban neighborhoods where wit and organizing skills may trump muscle, but it cannot be denied that young men still prize physical strength as a defining asset. Washington’s Hulk, despite his physicality, has a very sad but kind—even sweet—face. The consideration is whether he will really use his strength to right wrongs as the mythical Hulk did?
From the futuristic world of science fiction comes Luke Skywalker, protagonist of the Star War movies. Skywalker imposes the geography of rival cosmic world on black ghettos in Star Wars and 3rd Street. Laid over the thicket of city views and streetscapes is an airport landing strip and an airport tower, collapsing the distance between a fully invented world and the reality of Washington’s home town. In both, good and evil contest for control, and heroes are called for in order to assure the triumph of the positive. The ghetto must have its Luke Skywalker just as the galactic worlds needed theirs. In the related Final Frontier, we glimpse the face of this new type hero. Almost lost in a huge field of black relieved only by damask-like textural variations, a small space ship enters at the extreme lower left. Peering from it is a sliver of a black male’s face as he captains this vessel into the unknown. The great blackness before him, simultaneously a road divided by a white line and the universe, could as easily represent the mystery of the city as the expanse of the universe. Both must imagine their own heroes, and find ways to embody them in narratives.
Boogie Man combines Washington’s frequent use of cityscapes with his mastery of figurative imagery. Here towers and urban skylines are subsumed into a massive face that is not immediately apparent. However, once the eye of the face emerges, the remaining outlines that describe the visage become clear. Especially prominent are the lips that appear just above a collage of Minnie Mouse. Alas, the face of the boogieman turns out to be a black youth. In virtually all stories of the boogieman, he lacks clear features and seems to be primarily a ghost-like entity suitable for threatening children or frightening those with Gothic imaginations. How can one yoke together such a character with the innocence of Minnie Mouse? In a world where black men are often unjustly feared, what does it mean to be perceived as the boogieman? How exactly does this juxtaposition work? No real answer is forthcoming from Washington.
Washington says that his goal is to “relate black males to roles other than basketball players, rappers or savages”. He rejects stereotypical characterizations, while asserting black males as “ hero and villain, deity and monster, form and abstraction”, or put differently, as complex and internally contradictory. Washington nuanced black figure refuse to resolve internal inconsistencies. Identities in his work are contingent and overlapping, sometimes inclining toward known mythic heroes and sometimes suddenly veering in a different direction. Despite his interest in mythic heroes and villains, Washington insists that his images are grounded in urban experiences such as shaped his own life, and that they retain an undogmatic relationship to issues of social justice and positive representation.
In HERO’S STORY, Washington’s unstretched canvases reveal a dense, visceral world in which collaged and decollaged elements, over-drawn and over-painted, evoke a dark environment haunted by ancient archetypes of heroes intermingled with contemporary stereotypes and icons of black maleness. Drawing on his own complex and contradictory relationship to popular culture heroes such as The Incredible Hulk and “JJ”, he re-imagines such figures often inverting the heroic narratives to which they belong. He conjures, as noted in his artist statement, “. . . a new mythology rising from the ashes of urban debris, grit, personal memory and universal dreams to give voice to the ever-changing (r)evolution of human existence.
Cullen Washington, Jr. was born in Alexander, Louisiana, and studied at Louisiana State University (B.A., 1994) and Tufts University/School of the Museum of Fine Arts (M.F.A., 2009). His previous exhibitions include New Perspectives: Cullen Washington and Ernesto Cuevas at the Rialto Art Center and Cullen Washington Jr. and James Taylor at Hammonds House Museum, both in Atlanta, as well as group exhibitions at Bunker Hill Community College (Boston, MA), Clemson University (Clemson, SC), Tufts University (Medford, MA), Schuylkill Gallery (Philadelphia, PA), Rockmart Art Center (Rockmaont, GA) and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago,IL).
He has received the Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant, Arts Ambassadors Emerging Artist Award, Bartlett and Montague Travel Grant and other awards and honors.