By Michelle Trauring
In the wake of January 20 and the inauguration of a president endorsed by the Klu Klux Klan, millions of Americans are fighting to protect their fundamental rights, with growing concern that the nation’s policies toward civil rights could regress by a half-century.
People around the world are not sitting down quietly, and in honor of Black History Month, the Grenning Gallery is doing its part to stand up, according to sales associate Megan Toy.
“I think that under the current administration, our country is going to face a long struggle—racism being a major factor,” she said. “Currently, institutional recognition of the African-American artist has lagged behind their actual contribution, and we seek to offset that in our classical eddy of the art world.”
Bringing together the work of seven African-American artists for the upcoming exhibition “Expanding Tradition: The Journey of the African-American Artist,” opening Saturday, was “very interesting,” she said. While they all hail from vastly different backgrounds, as echoed in their media and painting styles, they all seem to capture a “certain mood, a sort of peaceful contemplation.”
Oil painters Mario Robinson and James Hoston, and Jas Knight, who thrives via watercolor, are all familiar faces at the Sag Harbor gallery, but new to the fold is emerging artist George Morton.
“His story is an inspirational one,” Ms. Toy said. “Raised in an impoverished and drug-infested community, Morton was arrested at the age of 20 for a first-time drug offense, and sentenced to 11 years in a federal prison. After patiently serving his time, Morton launched a Kickstarter account to fund his enrollment to the Florence Academy of Art. His drawing ‘Mars’ is exceptional, and we’ve made it our cover image for the exhibition.”
Co-curator of the exhibition, Andree MiChelle — a local African-American writer who is launching her new book “Escape Under Cover: The Ola Mae Story” this month — introduced artists Roger Beckles, a Barbados native and realist painter, and Philip Smallwood, who is known for his “Lifescapes” watercolor paintings, to the gallery. But artist Irvin Rodriguez took it upon himself to make them notice him.
“Irvin Rodriguez sent us his artwork though an email submission,” Ms. Toy explained. “Grenning Gallery’s inbox is drowning in email submissions from artists from across the globe and it is extremely rare we take on an artist this way. However, if the work is extraordinary, we cannot ignore it. And Irvin’s work is extraordinary. We may be giving him a show in the near future.”
In the contemporary art world, only a handful of African-American artists — among them Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon and Julie Mehretu — have made their way into the upper echelons, where their work fetches millions of dollars at auction. And even fewer have been given major solo museum shows, according to the gallery.
The art market generally undervalues work by 19th– and 20th-century African-American artists, relative to white artists of equal standing, and it is up to museums and galleries to combat this and advance racial diversity by showcasing both emerging and mid-career underrepresented artists.
“We want to support the black community, because civil rights is still a major issue, and we should all do what we can to enforce their worth,” Ms. Toy said, adding, “The Eastville Community Historical Society has a collection of historical documents, photographs, et cetera that tell the stories of local, historical black people in the Sag Harbor community. One item the director, Georgette Grier-Key, showed me was an old tintype of a local black man. She told me that the piece was discovered when a family was tearing up the floors, and the tintype was used as a tile, faced town, for flooring.
“People have been suppressing the history of black people for far too long,” she said, “and we need to change that.”
“Expanding Tradition: The Journey of the African-American Artist” will open with a reception on Saturday, February 4, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor. The exhibition remains on view through March 5. Ten percent of opening day sales will benefit the Eastville Community Historical Society, in support of its six-week summer art camp. For more information, call (631) 725-8469, or visit grenninggallery.com.