Charles White’s Forces of Liberation Are As Relevant As Ever
LACMA, Los Angeles
through June 9
By Sydney Walters
Through June 9th 2019, the Los Angeles County Art Museum is hosting Charles White: A Retrospective which is a monumental collection of over one hundred prints and paintings of art cataloging the resilience of black lives. The images are impressions that tie in signifiers to create an index of the working class and expanding its visual language into spiritual and moral discourse.
For the most part, this exhibit is chronological and tracks his artistic development and geographic locations. Born in Chicago, he moved to New York before settling down in Los Angeles.
The first pieces in the exhibit are large black and white prints. “In Solid as a Rock (My God is Rock)” created in 1958, a black man wearing what appears to be clerical robes clutches the garment with his left hand while his right hand is concealed behind his back. He stands with overly large bare feet planted on the ground. His robe is stiff which has the contours more like a tree trunk than billowing fabric. The man’s head is turned to the left following his fixed gaze. A high-necked collar, appearing as a noose pulls heavily to the right. This print is part of his Wanted Poster series which is based on pre-Civil War posters advertising slave auctions and rewards for runaways. This linoleum cut is etched with the iconic potency of war propaganda. However, the rest of his series is more delicate and ghostly which translates into a narrative rather than an immovable figure.
For these posters, White implements unique oil washes in sepia and dark shades which creates the illusion of a dreamlike mirage tossed into kaleidoscopic perspectives. In “Wanted Poster #17” a mother holds the shoulders of her young son. He is shirtless and ribs protrude from his tiny body. Above them is the wispy outline of a bald eagle and below the writing: SOLD. Vertical lines entrap the two figures like jail bars and a look of foreboding is in tension in the mother’s face. She wants to protect her son yet is haunted by the history and prevalence of racism in America for which she will be unable to shield him.
The women White paints are hardly different then the men. They also have large hands and feet, sharp, carved faces and wear plain outfits. In some portraits, the only differentiation are sagging breasts in austere dresses. His figures are not sequestered in traditional gender roles. They are all part of the working class wielding pitchforks, scythes and lumber. This places White’s work in conversation with the rural labor art of the nineteenth century such as Gustave Courbet’s The Stonebreakers (1849) and Jules Breton’s The Song of the Lark (1884). White highlights the robust dignity that extends from personhood rather than from work. Labor is a means to an end but not a means of identity. His figures are stoic and spiritual, unapologetically asserting themselves in a striking collective bound in spiritual force.
In “Nat Turner, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow”, a figure arches its back, hands reaching for the heavens as they are bathed in light. The dove, a metaphor as the Holy Spirit, sours near their chest. A portrait of a man, presumably Nat Turner, is in the background overlooking the scene of spiritual transformation. This is a scene of worship and if this space is a church, the portrait of Nat Turner is a stand-in for Christ’s pentocrator. This retrospective is flooded with other spiritual signifiers which add layers of complexity and gravity to his work.
Charles White’s commitment to social practice enables him to create a body of work that is contemporary, insightful and a call for action. He holds America accountable for the past and present abominations committed against the black community. At the same time, he holds up a mirror to his own black community whom he honors with celebration and dignity.