Lenard Brown: Earth Amma Series
South Dallas Cultural Center
May 14 – July 30, 2011
There are several ways to enjoy the Lenard Brown show Earth Amma Series, now in the Arthello Beck Gallery at the South Dallas Cultural Center.
Brown is a Houston artist with a long list of shows to his credit. This show reads almost like a retrospective in that Brown has presented here a variety of styles of work from the past several years. It’s sometimes hard to pull this kind of show off as a young artist, but Brown does just that.
The unifying principle in Brown’s work is that it is personal and spiritual. At first glance, much of the work appears abstract – shapes, patterns, icons. On this level alone, I found the show enjoyable. When viewing non-representational art, I love to run across an artist who has a unique style – and Brown does. You have not seen work that looks like this from other artists. This alone is such a great accomplishment that it’s tempting to simply take the work at face value and appreciate it on this level.
However, second walk through the show – this time paying attention to the stop cards to read titles and look at chronology of the pieces – reveals another level. Many of these are portraits – and that repeated abstracted figure shape represents prominent women from black culture – the wonderfully named Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Mary McLeod Bethune. Strong matriarchs of the black tradition in America. (I later learned that the word “Amma” in the show title refers to “mother.”) Earth Mother.
Other titles reference the artist’s upbringing in a Bible church – depicting the prophetess Deborah from the Old Testament book of Judges or Luke 1:31 – the Gospel narrative in which God sends the angel Gabriel to Nazareth to explain to Mary that she is pregnant with Jesus. These are more women of personal importance to the artist.
Do you see the levels building? Matriarchal figures from the Bible and from black American history – genealogy, ancestry, roots. Not surprising later, then, to read that the works in this show emanate from Brown’s experience of losing his mother. I have lost my mother, too, and it is certainly a life-changing experience.
The final level on which you can read Brown’s work is on a sort of iconographic and ethnological level. Brown’s deeply felt artist statement talks about his Western upbringing and his interest in visual icons like parking meters and street signs and the contrast between those icons and his ancestral roots visualized in African masks and Adinkra symbols.
If, like me, you are unfamiliar with Adinkra symbols, let me get you up to speed because if you miss this level in Brown’s work, you’ve missed something rich in heritage and visually important. Adinkra symbols are icons are Asante tribe symbols apparently seen everywhere in the West African country of Ghana. They are used on cloth and pottery and each has a name and meaning.
For example, the star-like figure in this drawing is “nsoromma,” which means “child of the heavens or stars.” It is a symbol of guardianship and a reminder that God watches over all people.
What do I mean when I suggest this show reads like a retrospective? Just this: while the majority of the show consists of these deeply spiritual and personal works, there is a smattering of other dissimilar work that shows other aspects of the artist’s talent.
Here are just a few very tenderly drafted realistic pencil portraits. Brown is a superb realistic portrait artist. Then, while many of the works are grayscale – graphite and charcoal and lithographs, there are also several colorful paintings that demonstrate a luscious sense of color and a signature palette.
Don’t underestimate the descriptive word “grayscale.” Brown’s black and white work exhibits that technique the Italians call “chiaroscuro” – every work is deep and rich and also bright: darkest velvety blacks to pure bright white and every level in between.
Many of the drawings are rendered on a ground of CAD drawings from those big plotter printers that civil engineers use. This printed paper is affixed to a hard surface, sometimes partially covered with paint, and then drawn on. A gloss varnish ultimately protects the drawing – but all of the process marks remain. There is an interesting contrast set up between the rigid, sure, repetitive detail of the CAD drawings and the fluid expressive chiaroscuro of Brown’s expert touch.
Finally, a series of lithographs with charcoal and graphite additions are literally pinned across the back wall of the gallery. As it turns out, these are my favorite pieces of the show. They are strong and bold. They are velvet black and hot white. They are highly graphic. They read as very loose and spontaneous, but show great strength of technique. Lithography may be Brown’s best medium and I hope he works more in it.
Lenard Brown is a serious artist and his work indicates it is his therapy. Whether you like insight into an artist’s soul when you view a show or you just like to see interesting art, “Earth Amma Series” is a satisfying way to spend part of the afternoon at the South Dallas Cultural Center in the shadow of Fair Park.