Evolutionary Process 

Fisk show captures the development of an important American artist

Fisk show captures the development of an important American artist

Echoes: The Art of David Driskell

Through Feb. 15

Fisk University’s Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery

Corner of Jackson Street and D.B. Todd Boulevard

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; 1-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

For information, call 329-8720

Forty-five years is a long time in any profession. It’s a near eternity in the visual arts, where trends—and artists—wax and wane in popularity with astonishing swiftness. So it’s a testament to David Driskell’s expansive artistic vision that this former Nashvillian has successfully navigated the fickle waters of the American contemporary art world for that length of time.

An artist in tune with his changing times and self, Driskell has experimented during his long career with a wide variety of styles, media, and subject matter. Yet within that range of artistic exploration, the artist’s fascination with the themes of nature, spirituality, and his own African American heritage have remained constant. The 34 paintings, collages, prints, and drawings included in the mini-retrospective of Driskell’s career now on view at Fisk University serve as artistic guideposts along the road that led the 68-year-old artist from the small Georgia town of his birth to a position as one of the most esteemed African American artists working today.

During his long career as an artist and educator, Driskell has curated numerous exhibitions on African American art and penned countless articles and books on the subject. He serves as a commissioner at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and the Amistad Research Center, and he’s curator of the Camille and Bill Cosby Collection of Fine Arts. In 1995, at the request of President and Mrs. Clinton, Driskell selected an artwork by African American artist Henry O. Tanner for permanent display in the White House.

If Driskell’s accomplishments as an arts educator and advocate are impressive, his achievements as an artist are just as remarkable, as the works on view at Fisk illustrate. There are works here from Driskell’s earliest years as a student artist at Howard University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree, and from his days at Catholic University of America, where he received a master of fine arts degree. There are also works from his tenure at Fisk University, where he headed the art department from 1966-1976, and pieces created during his distinguished 21-year career as head of the University of Maryland art department, a position from which he retired a few years ago.

There are paintings, drawings, and collages that reflect the profound influence of Driskell’s travels and teaching experiences in Nigeria and ones that illustrate the equally profound influence of the pine woods that surround his summer residence in Falmouth, Maine. From lithographs and woodcuts to oil, encaustics, and watercolor, the range of the media Driskell has explored over the years is nearly as far-reaching as his global travels. Subject matter and styles vary too, from realistic self-portraits and impressionistic landscapes to colorful cubist abstracts, found-object collages, and expressionistic figurative paintings.

The earliest work in the show is a 1953 oil-on-board self-portrait of Driskell as an undergraduate at Howard University. It is a straightforward, realistic look at the artist as a young man. He appears thoughtful but confident, with his chin resting against his hand. A second self-portrait, created in woodcut some 20 years later, shows the artist adopting a similar pose and an even more confident and direct expression. The most recent works in the show consist of Driskell’s varied views of the woods outside his Maine home. These range from a delicate pen and ink on paper called ”Falmouth Window“ to the expressionistic abstract ”Our Lady of the Pines,“ both 1997 works. The Maine woods have long fascinated the artist, as evidenced by ”Pines at Falmouth,“ a dynamic cubist look at towering evergreens under a full moon, painted in 1961.

Biblical characters and African American Christian religious traditions have also played a consistent role in Driskell’s work over the years and provide inspiration for some of the most powerful pieces in the Fisk show. ”Eve and the Apple,“ a 1967 color woodcut; ”Ruth and Naomi,“ a 1997 encaustics on paper; and ”Gabriel,“ a 1965 oil on canvas, all depict important biblical figures in Driskell’s own distinctive style. Powered by a bold use of color and texture, it is a style that blends figurative and abstract elements into a visually stunning and emotionally compelling whole.

Perhaps the most significant influence in Driskell’s art, however, is the cultural richness of Africa and the African Diaspora. The elaborate masks, jewelry, and textile patterns of Africa have inspired imagery in Driskell’s art since his student years, but their influence became more pronounced following his first trip to Nigeria in 1969. African culture and design continues to inform, though never overwhelm, his work today. ”Memories of a Distant Past,“ a 1975 gouache and collage, and ”Ancestral Icon,“ a 1992 encaustics and collage work, are especially fine examples of the artist’s ability to present African imagery in a contemporary context that has a universal appeal.

While some of the pieces in the Fisk show proceed in chronological order, just as many seem grouped by subject or style rather than by date. This random arrangement often confuses rather than illuminates the artist’s development over four decades. Still, the show is an exceptional one in terms of presenting strong individual works that collectively tell the intriguing story of an important American artist’s career.

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