Works by Donte' K. Hayes
Through Feb. 26 at Ruby Green
Ruby Green begins its 2005 season by showing paintings and installation by Atlanta-based artist Donte' K. Hayes. An active artist in the South, Hayes seeks to provoke discussions about the perpetuation of black stereotypes in contemporary society. His work is bold, and at times obvious, in calling out the controversial archetypes of black culture. Roofing paper serves as a sturdy canvas to withstand his abrasive painting style, in which acrylics are thickly applied without smooth color transitions. Hayes' technical ability with the paint seems as intolerant as the tone he is hoping to create with his racially charged subject matter. The heavy black outlines not only create a contrasting dynamic with the saturated interior colors, but also accentuate the simplicity of the figures and forms.
The show is predicated on the literal definition of the word "superstition": a belief that's maintained despite rational evidence to the contrary. This explanation appears not only in the artist's statement, but also on the promotional postcard advertising the exhibit; the repetition needlessly establishes an unmistakable context for the viewer and doesn't even allow for the work alone to lead us to similar conclusions.
The pieces often reference degrading historical characters such as the "mammy" and the "jolly nigger," as well as revealing recent types generated by modern media. In "Don't Mess With Bill," the entertainer Bill Cosby is painted embraced by his own Fat Albert cartoons, heightening his shift from man to characterization. Hayes does offer a new subject for consideration with the invention of the Gingerblack Man, a morphing of the children's storybook character the Gingerbread Man with the derogatory Sambo caricature, which was created after slavery to reduce mainstream society's fear of the physically and sexually threatening African American male. Gingerblack Man is literally a black cookie-cutter form that takes on a different persona in each painted situation. Hayes states that this icon is "the anti-racist hero of healing and understanding" and that he "acts as the consciousness of African Americans."
Because all of the subjects and the artist are African American, the viewer is led into a sort of ethnocentric dialogue within that community. This is especially apparent in "Look at Yourself." As we walk up to the piece, we are confronted by our own image reflected in the large, mirrored shape of the Gingerblack Man. Placed around this polished surface are smaller construction-paper replicas of the icon with phrases such as "black enough" or "stop trying to be white" inscribed on them. America's history of suppressing and exploiting a race with its own imagery has perpetuated a quandary of compounded identity for the entire culture, and by stepping into Hayes' show, we take a further leap into the unanswerable. Certainly, the Gingerblack Man seems an uncertain attempt to summarize the totality and complexity of the modern "black conscious." However, the icon works in the narratives as both sensitive observer and assertive participant, at times acting as a cue for the audience on how to respond to the circumstances, yet at times he assimilates with the subjects and asks us to respond to him. His presence exemplifies the negotiation between the self and the communal.
Like the original pickaninny caricatures from the early 1900s, Hayes uses bulging eyes and large, red-lipped smiles. Such disturbing imagery conjures up political and social issues, but Hayes stops short of leading us somewhere new. In "I Love My Nappy Hair, Big Lips and Watermelon," an African American woman, seated with her eyes wide open, holds a huge slice of watermelon up to her mouth. Her thick, black-and-gray-impasto hair frames the top of the composition, while the Gingerblack Man sits beside her with one arm extended toward her. His expression is made with a circular mouth suggesting horror or surprise. The title and the image both offer a clear-cut example of racial slurring, leaving the viewer to wonder what new question the artist might be posing here.
The recycling of this type of imagery is standard practice, just like the obsessive sampling currently done in all of the arts, but an artist can still create meaningful work by digging into his or her personal experiences to offer unique interpretations of racial politics. Hayes may be lacking that personal element in his work, but there is a beauty in his honesty and dedication. His work remains forthright and relevant in a society that continues to favor complacency over inquiry when it comes to racial issues. History is said to repeat itself, and Hayes' work is further attempting to amplify it.
I mean, I didn't see the movie.
The Solomon book hardly surprises me. Writing books that supposedly "out" legendary artists has been…
Next Assembly is Sunday, Dec. 8 at 11am. Location is Tenn. Bar Center, 221 4th…
I have to agree with the original writer...there is enough real-life tragedy in the world...TV…