The photograph, snapped by local artist Cheryl Jackson during a Burchfield Penney Art Center opening in September, captures a definitive cultural moment of 2012.
In the photo, Buffalo-born artists Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez and Jacqueline Tarry share a warm and knowing glance with one another as a film by Tarry and her collaborator Bradley McCallum plays on the towering wall behind them.
Here were two artistic talents – Spain, a rabble-rousing comics artist of wide influence; Tarry, a creator of acclaimed work about race and memory – forged in the crucible of working-class Buffalo. Of different generations, each had taken their experiences out into the world, gained acclaim and returned to be honored by their hometown museum.
The stunning dual exhibitions honoring those artists – "Spain: Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels and Revolution;" and "McCallum/Tarry: Intersections" – may be the Burchfield Penney's finest achievement since it opened the doors of its new home in 2008. Each show smartly explores the work of artists concerned deeply with America's history of human bondage and the ongoing struggle for equality. But perhaps even more importantly, the shows reintroduce Western New York to two important expatriates and reconnect it to a forgotten piece of our own greatness.
It's hard to think of any greater purpose to which a regional museum could aspire.
> "McCallum/Tarry: Intersections" through Jan. 20
The first thing you notice when you step into the east gallery of the Burchfield Penney is the resounding voice of the young musician Imani Uzuri singing a single word: "freedom."
The song introduces and summarizes a remarkable retrospective of the work of the interracial, husband-and-wife artistic team of Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. The two have dedicated their impressive careers to exploring the painful and murky history of race in the United States.
McCallum/Tarry's work spans all media. And this show contains multitudes: videos pieced together from footage and photographs of the civil rights movement; large, color portraits of young homeless people; audio loops from victims of police brutality, embedded in old-fashioned phone boxes; shrouded gravestones honoring dead slaves, and well over 100 haunting portraits created using an inspired amalgam of oil painting and photography.
The team's portrait work, used to great effect in an exhibition for the Prospect.1 biennial in New Orleans in 2008, inspired local curators to invite McCallum/Tarry to the Beyond/In Western New York show in 2010. It is arresting.
For the project, "The Evidence of Things Not Seen," the team made 104 oil paintings based on the mug shots of men and women who participated in the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott. They then printed the mug shot photos onto 104 sheets of Chinese silk and positioned those sheets about a quarter inch from the surface of the painting. The result is a strangely alluring distortion of the faces of these civil rights pioneers, one that invites viewers to consider those faces from different angles and to explore how the images change as you move around the gallery.
More than tributes to the brave people who broke the law to claim to their rights, the portraits have to do with the way we see and remember history. The quarter-inch of space between the oil paint and the photograph represents the seemingly miniscule distance between our time and that of the civil rights movement. Yet even in that small space – and for that matter the half-inch gap that separates us from the era of slavery – McCallum and Tarry suggest that a huge distortion can take place. As time passes, our understanding of history blurs, just like the faces of those people. They dissolve into emotional impressions, and therefore become easier to consign to history, or worse, succumb to nostalgia.
The art reminds us that we perceive history not as it was, but through a scrim of silk.
McCallum/Tarry expanded on that 2008 work to create a 2010 exhibition on the observation deck of Buffalo's City Hall that considered the great migration of African-Americans to northern industrial cities like our own. Fragments of that powerful show appear here as well, including a series of paintings based on archival copies of Buffalo's African-American newspaper, the Challenger.
There is no centerpiece or chronological flow to "Intersections," which has been installed in a completely unorthodox manner. The installation makes excellent use of the gallery's towering walls, breaking up separate projects and interspersing them with one another in a salon-style configuration. Burchfield Penney Director Anthony Bannon suggests reading the exhibition like a kind of poem, approaching each group of works like a stanza that makes the inherent connections between seemingly disparate issues (homeless white youth and slavery, for instance) easier to see.
That approach works. There is no single lesson to draw from the duo's extensive video featuring interviews with homeless and drug-addicted youth from Seattle, or from their self-portraits exploring their own relationship (Tarry is black and McCallum is white).
But there is one work in the show whose point is uncommonly crystal clear: A photograph of a mountaintop, without a doubt a reference to the imaginary vista of true freedom and equality the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about in his final speech ("I've been to the mountaintop. ... I've looked over and I've seen the promised land") the night before he was assassinated. It is shrouded in fog.
> "Spain: Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels and Revolution" through Jan. 20
Uzuri's song, "Freedom," also sets the tone for a career survey by comics artist Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez, whose passion for freedom of expression and for the working-class is legendary.
Rodriguez, hailed by comics artists like R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman as an integral figure in the underground comics world, has long been a subject of fascination for exhibition co-curator and Hallwalls director Edmund Cardoni. With the help of the Burchfield Penney's Don Metz, Cardoni has turned that fascination into a compelling tribute to the work of an artist whose entire sensibility is tied up with Buffalo's history as a working-class town.
At the start of the show, visitors are greeted with an excellent short documentary by Susan Stern about Rodriguez and his history, with contributions from Crumb, Rodriguez and others. We see his early attempts at oil painting, which could be worse, but are enough to make you happy that he followed his muse into the comics world.
In the main gallery, we get to the good stuff. There are original pen-and-ink drawings of Rodriguez's highly involved stories of his time in a Buffalo biker gang, with wonderful onomatopoeia to mimic the sound of revving motorcycles (my favorite: "frukkafrukkafrukka"). We also get panels and covers from Zap and the East Village Other, a great color illustration of a 1950s Buffalo street scene from his book "Cruisin' With the Hound" and a look into the artist's nonfiction opus, a graphic biography of Che Guevara.
As others have remarked, Rodriguez's greatest accomplishments are his detailed, gritty cityscapes. Some of them are based on Buffalo neighborhoods like Allentown; others were inspired by the much larger (but just as gritty) East Village in New York City, where Rodriguez lived for a time while drawing comics and covers for the underground newspaper the East Village Other.
While in New York, Rodriguez created the character for which he will always be best known: Trashman. This street-thug superhero, cobbled together from bits of Rodriguez's history with the Road Vultures motorcycle club and his fascination with left-wing heroes like Guevara, was out to exact vengeance on the ruling class on behalf of the proletariat.
The show might have benefited from a deeper consideration of Trashman's background and a charting of the character's influence on subsequent artists in comics, literature and film. But this is the lone drawback in an otherwise comprehensive exhibition.
After his stint in New York, Rodriguez took off for his longtime home of San Francisco, where he became an early contributor to the thoroughly wacky Zap Comix and began to develop and refine his socially conscious approach to comics. That social concern, which did not prove as popular as the approaches taken by his more famous friends like Spiegelman and Crumb, would drive Rodriguez for the rest of his life.
For evidence of the show's immediate effectiveness, simply visit an abandoned train station near Buffalo's Central Terminal, where graffiti artists painted an enormous seven-panel tribute to Rodriguez after his death from cancer late last month. That mural is proof positive that Rodriguez's spirit and his work – little known to most Western New Yorkers – is in the midst of a second life.
And that's in large part due to this show, which reclaims him for Western New York.