The best way to enjoy “Each One Teach One: Preserving Legacy in Perpetuity” is to ignore the theme.
That might seem like an odd thing to say about an art show with no fewer than four curators. But sometimes a frame is so heavy that it makes it harder to apprehend the picture. So it is with the exhibition that will hang in the main space at the Morris Museum in Morris Township through Aug. 27. Go in looking for strong work from some of the best African-American artists in New Jersey, and you won’t be disappointed. As testimony about the importance of individual guidance within the Garden State arts scene, it is less convincing.
This is an easy show to appreciate, but a tricky one to navigate. “Each One Teach One” presents works by African-American artists alongside other pieces by African-American artists who have had an influence in shaping their practice or their career. Curators Bryant Small, Onnie Strother, Ron Powell and Nette Forné Thomas refer to the artist exerting that influence as a mentor. They decline to use the conventional term for a mentor’s pupil — protégé — to describe the artist under that influence, opting instead to use mentee, a more recent (and more awkward) coinage. The relationship between the mentor and the mentee in “Each One Teach One” is not a formal one, and it’s not the same in all cases. Some of the mentors in “Each One Teach One” are educators, or arts advocates, or community leaders. Sometimes the mentor is more like a well-connected buddy.
Mentors and mentees make worthy contributions to the show in roughly equal measure. Small, who is listed as a mentor for no fewer than three of the artists in the exhibition, shows one of his luscious paintings in alcohol ink, with bright, creamy fields of color melting into each other and darting between bulb-like shapes rendered in jet black. “Dancing to My Own Music” is, like all of Small’s alcohol ink paintings, suggestive of spring, growth and promise, and it is easy to see why a young artist might seek him out for advice.
Gannon Crutcher, one of Small’s mentees, steers us toward his “Great Navigator,” an acrylic and watercolor image of a supernaturally thin, heavy-lidded man with multicolored neck extenders and his hair done up into a single spike. He’s a human spear, but he doesn’t look aggressive; instead, he stands ward, ready to repel invaders.
Cheryl R. Riley, briefly the Downtown ward representative on the review board for the Jersey City Arts and Culture Trust Fund, inverts expectations by claiming the younger artist Theda Sandiford as a mentor. Riley’s intriguing piece is a squat cylinder of wood with a space dug out of its center for an exercise in lepidoptery. A monarch butterfly is affixed to the wall of the aperture by a rain of yellow-headed upholstery tacks. Atop the polished surface of the wood, seven faceless figurines freeze in mid-skate. The sculpture is named after “Giovanni’s Room,” James Baldwin’s quietly explosive novel about passion, misdirection and same-sex desire, and it hums with secrecy and playful inscrutability. Sandiford, by contrast, holds nothing back, dangling long garlands made from plastic rings and bottlecaps from the top of a wooden ladder, letting the streamers fall in a polythene cascade. What did Riley, the elder of the pair, learn from Sandiford, her junior? It’s hard to tell. Each artist seems to be, like Small, dancing to her own music.
Likewise, the abstract paintings in “Each One Teach One” are terrific, but they are also such clear expressions of personal visions that it is hard to square them with the show’s theme of inheritance and patronage.
Among the older pieces in the show is a softly mesmerizing work on paper by the mid-20th Century artist Norman Lewis. His drawing is a play of parallel lines that look like razor slices, misty washes of brown-gray pigment that resemble faded burn marks, and forest green highlights that impart a sense of dimension to the piece. Right next to it is Danny Simmons’ “The Complicated Things About My Father,” a donnybrook of color and shape, with sharp-pointed crescent moons of red oil paint intersecting with curved black lines and knee patches of pigment. It is as boisterous as Lewis’ work is cool.
On an adjacent wall hangs “Tainted Love” by Dawn Stringer, who is rapidly becoming one of the Garden State’s most dynamic young abstract painters. Arcs of brown acrylic paint spring from a reddened horizon line while a fierce combination of paint smears and spectral shapes jostle for attention in the foreground. It’s my favorite piece in a show with many good pieces, but in its peculiar energy and its poised, ambivalent mood, it shares little with its neighbors — even the audacious abstractions by Lewis and Simmons.
“Each One Teach One” follows the outstanding “For the Culture, By the Culture,” the Spring 2022 Morris Museum show that celebrated the 30th anniversary of the African-American cultural initiative Art in the Atrium. Strother and Thomas were involved in the curation of that show, too, alongside Charles D. Craig, the husband of the late quilter and Art in the Atrium founder Viki Craig. Celebrating Craig, who died at the age of 71 in 2018, has become a springtime ritual for the Morris Museum: she was the star of the 2021 show “Social Fabric,” a quilting-intensive exhibition that brought her forth as a master practitioner of the art form and an inspiration to everyone in New Jersey with a needle and thread. Craig extended genuine mentorship to scores of artists through Art in the Atrium, and her modest but winsome piece in “Each One Teach One,” exemplary in its simplicity and balance, does exert a kind of gravitational force on its two neighbor-quilts.
It’s also one of the rare parts of the exhibition that functions as the curators intended it to. For most of the show, it’s rarely clear whether we’re looking at the work of a mentor, a mentee, or some combination of both. Including that information on the cards attached to the artworks would have gone a long way to improve the legibility of a show that doesn’t communicate its theme as clearly as its organizers think it does. Paintings hung side by side seem to be in dialogue, but the relationship between the exhibited canvases is never explained. In order to understand who mentored whom, it’s necessary to consult a guide at the Museum front desk or a printed looseleaf book available in a plastic sleeve by the main gallery entrance.
The book is a sorry thing. It feels terribly inadequate to a show that contains so much quality work. It matches mentees with mentors, but doesn’t provide much more insight than that. Those hungry for details about aesthetic ideas and concepts transferred from one artistic mind to another will come away unsatisfied. Instead, mentees testify to their mentors’ business sense, goal orientation, nose for opportunities, and knack for navigating the difficult territory of a challenging profession. These qualities are attractive and useful, but they fit a leadership seminar better than they do a museum show. Sometimes, the blurbs are accidentally unflattering. Small, for instance, tells Crutcher to “just do the work” and, more problematically, to “keep it simple, stupid” — a piece of advice that, I am glad to say, the mentee seems to have ignored. These self-help platitudes are supposed to demonstrate Small’s wisdom, but they mostly make him sound like a grumpy life coach.
“Each One Teach One” puts mentorship in the context of slave pedagogy: older captives relaying knowledge in secret to younger people denied traditional education by those intent on keeping them in bondage. To African-American artists who have been on the outside of professional networks, guidance from those who have been able to riddle through hardship probably feels as liberating, and invigorating, as a hit of pure oxygen.
But mentorship is also a concept freighted with managerial overtones. As cold as the art scene can seem to initiates, it’s not structured like a corporation. Art has gatekeepers and networks, but there isn’t a dean or a big boss; there is no final exam, and no matter how poorly you paint, you can’t get fired. Individual artists may have business mentors who help them get a leg up. Some of those mentors may indeed be other artists. But unless we can see that influence, and that relationship, reflected on the canvas, that’s a matter best kept between creators and their agents and accountants. As art appreciators and museum-goers, we don’t care about marketing strategies. We’re looking for other things: inspirations, motivations, elements that situate a work within a tradition.
All of that is present throughout this show, even if we’re left to dig for it on our own. African motifs, repurposed materials reclaimed from the trash, gold jewelry and religious iconography reoccur with regularity. The irony of “Each One Teach One” is that many of the works in the show correspond much better to those by unrelated artists than they do with the ones made by their designated mentor or mentee.
The weariness on the face of Gwendolyn Jackson’s bird-behatted cardboard woman echoes that of Strother’s pained portrait of Emmett Till. Those doily-like golden halos that crown the heads of Danielle Scott’s characters in “Grandma’s Hands” are reminiscent of the colorful circles around “The Aunties” in Beverly McCutcheon’s endearing collage. The vibrant diamonds and rectangles on Ellaree Pray’s quilt “Black Cotton,” each containing separate dramatic scenes, has more than a bit in common with Mansa Mussa’s assembly of white boxes, each one an upturned bedroom drawer stuffed with plastic valuables.
That space in the middle of Riley’s butterfly sculpture meets its match in Lester Johnson’s “Sphere in Head Mask,” a provocative wooden bust of a man with a deep rectangular compartment where his ears ought to be. Suliman Onque’s “Brick Goddesses” — with their hollowed eyes, features captured in hard black lines, and faces made of colorful shapes — might have something to say to Jose Manuel Cruz’s hurricane of a human being, composed of black enamel curves, in the whirling “HEE.”
These pieces share a visual language. The artists in “Each One Teach One” have a common frame of reference: African-American identity and the New Jersey experience, and the difficulties and joys of pursuing careers in art in a place as vexing, and as fascinating, as the Garden State.
As a fan of these artists, I find it heartening that they are looking out for each other. I believe that they have reaped professional rewards from the interpersonal networks they have built. But that is nothing to build an art show around. Especially when the art is as good as this.
The Morris Museum in Morris Township presents “Each One Teach One: Preserving Legacy in Perpetuity” through Aug. 27. Visit morrismuseum.org.
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