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The most fascinating aspect of collage for me is how dramatically it presents the narrative or figure it’s focused on. In the work of skillful collagists, like Hannah Hoch, Wangechi Mutu, and Henri Matisse, their reinvention of the figure is rendered in highly stylized terms so melodramatic that the characters that emerge read as mythic. I approach these artists’ work wide-eyed, expecting to be surprised. I have a similar expectation when I look at the work of Romare Bearden — visual historian of the American South, member of the Harlem Renaissance, soldier, songwriter, author, and artist activist — because he excels in these things that collagists can do.
One sees all of this in the current DC Moore Gallery show Romare Bearden: Bayou Fever and Related Works. In “Bayou Fever, Untitled (The Conjur Woman)” (1979) a woman warrior breathes fire against an approaching demon figure. The demon is an amalgam of geometrically patterned cloth, with a head crowned with spikes of paper. The woman is simply a brown body, naked, facing the creature while exhaling flame. This image likely has to do with Bearden’s exploration of Obeah, a religious practice originating in Ghana and found in the Caribbean, and of Hoodoo, the complementary practice found in the United States. In Bearden’s hands, the characters of this collage, like other prominent ones in the show, including the Swamp Witch and the Hatchet Man, become part of a pantheon, a great mythological scheme particular only to the black American South.
The idea behind the Bayou Fever series of 21 collages from 1979 (shown here for the first time in public) was to make a ballet, choreographed by Alvin Ailey, with Bearden’s work providing the main characters and settings of the performance. The artist had an interest in dance, perhaps developed through his wife who had her own company, the Nanette Bearden Contemporary Dance Theater.
The exhibition also includes about 30 additional artworks chosen to extend the imagery and themes of the Bayou Fever series. Altogether one gets to experience paintings and collages of propulsive color, unconventional figuration, and consistent visual surprise. Though this work was never fully realized, it can never die.
Romare Bearden: Bayou Fever and Related Works continues at DC Moore Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, 2nd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 29.
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