Archive for the Visual Artists Category

Celebrating an American Master

Posted in Cultural Matters, Visual Artists with tags on June 3, 2015 by playthell

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A virtuoso of the double Bass Violin Serenades the aesthetes

 The Otto Neal Retrospective in Kenkelbe House

On the last Sunday in May an overflow crowd turned out to honor the octogenarian artist Otto Neals at a “Retrospective” of his long and productive career at the Kenkeleba House Gallery in the East Village.  Not even a violent thunder storm  with frightening lightening and pouring rain could deter these intrepid aesthetes from their appointed round: Paying homage to a great artists who has enriched American culture with an amazing Oeuvre that includes Painting, Printmaking, Collage and Sculpture.  An autodidact whose varied work bears the unmistakable mark of genius.

Mr. Neals, is a cultural treasure in a class by himself.  His work displays the wide interest that is characteristic of the broadly learned autodidact who has not been trained to think in specialized ways.  I believe that this, as much as his obvious gifts, explain Mr. Neals’ amazing versatility. Although he never completed a formal course of instruction in the arts leading to a BA or MFA degree, like most outstanding autodidacts Otto benefited from his association with distinguished artists who recognized his talent – it was akin to an apprenticeship in a medieval guild studying under masters of their craft.

A life-long Brooklynite, he took advantage of an opportunity to take a class with at the prestiegous Brooklyn Museum of Art conducted by Isaac Soyer, the Russian Émigré and great social realist painter whose favorite subjects was the working class of New York, and dancers.  Given his experience as a working class black man in Brooklyn it is easy to see how Otto would have been attracted to Soyer’s work.  He also studied with the master Afro-American printmaker Bob Blackburn.

In 1958 he became involved with the Fulton Art Fair, where he met and interacted with other gifted Afro- American artists such as Tom Feelings, Ernie Crichlow and Jacob Lawrence.  All of whom would make their mark in 20th century American art.  Otto is still making his into the 21st century.

It has become cliché to ask if life imitates art or vice versa? As a general proposition this question is far beyond the scope of the present essay, but it is apparent that in the New York art world the exhibition and marketing of fine art conforms to the etiquette of race relations in this city.  In matters of color art is as separate as life.  Among the consequences of this racial separation is that black artists – even when they are great – do not have ready access to wealthy patrons; who tend to be white and favor white artists.

Alas the problem of economic survival is a constant for black artists in America;  Neals solved this problem by working as a civil Servant in the US Post Office.  Hence it is no exaggeration to say that Kenkelebe House has been a sanctuary for artists of color.  On their website they describe the source of their inspiration and define their mission thusly:

Named for a West African plant believed to possess spiritual powers, Kenkeleba House is dedicated to the exhibition of artworks by African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American artists. Kenkeleba House sponsors six to ten exhibitions a year of four to five weeks duration, often exploring historical or thematic issues. Educational programs such as artist talks, demonstrations, performances and lectures are often supplement the exhibits. An outdoor sculpture garden enlivens the property. A satellite space, the Wilmer Jennings Gallery, is across the street at number 219.”

The “Retrospective” show dedicated to the art of Otto Neals is the brainchild of Dr. Myrah Brown Green, who conceived and curated the show.  Since Dr. Green can be seen conducting a penetrating interview with Mr. Neals by clicking the video link at the bottom of this photo- essay,  I will confine my discussion of the Curators relationship with the artist to an observation from my conversation with Dr. Green about how this exhibition came to be.

I got the distinct impression that she views these Retrospectives as an ancestral imperative…a kind of ancestor veneration ritual celebrated while the elder is alive to witness it.  She spoke of feeling an urgent commitment to honor our black artists of outstanding achievement but have received only sparse recognition, and to enrich the art world by bringing their works before a wider public.

With that objective as her guiding principle Dr. Green planned this exhibition to be shown at six galleries.  She said she wanted “something big,” something equal to his talent and importance.  This was no picayune task, as Mr. Neals is a master of five mediums.  Four of them – painting, sculpture, wood cut printmaking, and collage, are displayed in the pictures below.

To say the exhibition is a visual feast that touches all the places in our hearts, minds and souls that only great art is capable of reaching is very nearly an understatement. Some of the viewers at the exhibition, sophisticated savants and avid cultural consumers, were driven to tears by the powerful alchemy of Mr. Neal’s art.

At the Wilmer Jennings Gallery
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 Internationally Renown Photographer Mel Wright Was Chillin
The Arts Community Turned out to Honor a Giant

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Stylish folks with Good Taste
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Mesmerized by Pictures in the Exhibition

To be a prolific maker of fine art is quite enough to justify a life well lived, but Mr. Neals has done more.  He is a founding father of a grand tradition.   Although it now seems that people always talked about a “black esthetic,” and consciously worked to realize this ideal in their art; it was not ever thus.  This kind of talk is the product of the “Black Arts Movement” of the 1960’s, which began with the founding of the African Jazz Art Society in New York, during 1958.

The founders included visual and Musical artists: Elombe and Kwame Braithwaite – a graphic artist and photographer – along with Max Roach and Abby Lincoln. Max was a composer, bandleader and father of a school of improvisational drumming in the Jazz tradition that has influenced the language and technique of those who play the complex Jazz drum set everywhere in the world. And Abby was a wonderful singer with an original style as well as an accomplished actress.  As activists and husband and wife, Max and Abby was the First couple of the Black Arts Movement; their example inspired and served as a model for many activists marriages…including my own.

Just as the birth of Da Da, an art movement which rose from the smoldering ruins of post-World War I Europe can be traced to explorations by artists such as Marcel Janco and Jean Arp at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich Switzerland, and the invention of Bebop can be traced to the sonic experiments of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Theolonius Monk, et al in Minton’s Playhouse, the black Arts movement can be traced to the African Jazz Art Society, which promoted soirees featuring Jazz, Visual Art, and the kind of erudite black talk that became common fare among black intellecuals, writers, activists, musicians and visual artists during the 1960’s. ** See notes at bottom of the page

All of these artistic movements were inspired by the reactions of the artists to their environment. The creators of Da Da were driven by a distrust of rigid order and hierarchal authority inspired by the degeneration of modern European civilization into the barbarism of War; Bebop was propelled by a desire for freedom against the creative restrictions of the big band and the imperatives of commerce; the Black Arts Movement was a revolt against the conventions of European Art and the racist tyranny of white imagery….both of themselves and black folks.

For black artist this was also a political statement, since Afro-Americans were still sufering under the apartheid system based on racial caste oppression.  In fact, the raison d’etre of the Black Arts Movement was to create art that could serve as a cultural weapon in the Black Liberation Movement which spawned it. In each instance the principal motivation of the artists was to create a new art.

One of the fruits of this cultural and political ferment was the founding of the Weusi Academy and in Harlem, a group of visual iconoclast determined to smash conventional wisdom about the meaning of art…and art itself.  They also established the Nyumba Ya Sanaa gallery to exhibit their work.  Mr. Neals was a founding father of this widely influential institution along with other innovators such as Ademola Olugbefola and the late great Yusef Rachman.  Yusef has danced and joined the ancestors but Ademola is still very much with us and actively creating important art.

Ademola recalls when his longtime friend and colleague “carved his first work of wood sculpture. It was obvious even then that he possessed special gifts,” he says.  “Nobody deserves a retrospective of this scale more than him.”  It was through an invitation from Ademola that I happened to attend this opening, and I decided to bring my camera along.  The portraits below are my impression of the show.  Click the link below the pictures for the video presentations on the artist.

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First choice pring

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 First Choice Collage

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Otto Neal

The Grand Master: Otto Neals 

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Click to see video of Dr. Green interviewing Otto Neals
https://youtu.be/GAjI
 Watch Otto Neals discuss is sources of inspiration
hhttp://breuckelenmagazine.com/artist/otto-neals
Watch Otto Neals in the Studio as he explains his scuptural technique 
 https://youtu.be/PRKJmFIRO9U
Watch Otto Neals discuss his wood sculptures 
https://vimeo.com/15637232
Watch Interview with Neals’ Weusi colleague Ademola Olugbefola
https://youtu.be/-F7x-VyggTo
* For Elombe Brath See: https://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/in-remembrance-of-brother-elombe/
 For The African Jazz Art Society see:https://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/the-death-of-sister-soul/
Photos and text by: Playthell G. Benjamin
Except for photo of Otto Neals
 Harlem New Rork, June 3, 2015