Rico Gatson: Icons 2007-2017 at the Studio Museum in Harlem
April 20, to August 27, 2017
144 W 125th Street (at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard)
New York City, studiomuseum.org
Despite the fact that the famous African Americans in Rico Gatson’s “Icons,” , are pictured at the height of their power and creativity (in their iconic moment), each photograph of these heroes of music, art, and politics is scaled small in relation to the expanse of paper in which they are collaged. In the surrounding space, hand drawn lines edge ecstatically around the figure in individualized emanations. In colored pencil and marker at a width of about a third of an inch, lines of radiation, a system of repeating vectors, emanate from the subject’s head or chest, marking a relationship to mind or heart.
Gatson’s ongoing series is the subject of a focused display, curated by Hallie Ringle in the Studio Museum’s mezzanine gallery, a low-ceilinged, small room, offering an intimate setting for these 28 works on paper.
The images the artist excerpts are often familiar: a portrait of Chuck Berry kneeling in profile with his guitar; a smoking, contemplative James Baldwin; Angela Davis proclaiming full throttle at a civil rights rally; Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks pushing sound through his horn. The splashes of color that surround these dynamic images hit as an explosion of excitement or lust or cool, but the individual icon is the lifeblood of each piece.
Gatson’s idiom brings to mind Sol Lewitt drawings as well as album covers like Stevie Wonder’s Songs from the Key of Life, and the classic Blue Note covers from the 1950s and ‘60s by modernist designer Reid Miles.
With the exception of one or two drawings, like Cassius Clay hanging precariously on pointed peeks against a white abyss, Gatson’s icons are visually grounded. The artist chose renowned figures of American history and culture. This stands in contrast, however, to Andy Warhol’s project, which lays bare the emptiness of celebrity and the intoxicating effects of spectacle. Gatson’s portraiture is aspirational. His subjects shout to us in proud exclamatory mode: Miles Davis! Billie Holiday! Amiri Baraka! He illustrates the physical and psychic embodiment of black presence with a capital “B”, in an emotional style that conveys absolute reverence. See us, hear us. The fanning lines around these figures could equally be halos.
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