With a Very Wide View of History: Charles Mills and the Twentieth Century

If you've ever been on Sistrunk Boulevard (AKA NW Sixth Street) just west of where it meets Andrews Avenue, you've probably seen the art of Charles Mills, in the form of a sprawling mural on the south side of the street. That's Mills' Sistrunk Entryway and Historical Wall, dedicated in April 1993 and representative of the artist's preoccupation with African-American history. That interest is not surprising, given that Mills is probably Broward County's best-known black artist. You can get a fuller sense of Mills' accomplishments in "With a Very Wide View of History: Charles Mills and the Twentieth Century," a one-man retrospective of (by my count) 75 works in various media now at the Broward Main Library's Gallery Six. That ambitious title is only partially accurate: While Mills' subjects are mostly figures from the 20th Century, nearly two-thirds of the exhibition is devoted to works from the 21st Century. More to the point, these newer works are among the show's strongest. That's all the more impressive when you consider that Mills is 88. With rare exceptions, the exhibition emphasizes Mills the portraitist. When you step off the elevator into the gallery you're confronted with a group of five portraits of varying quality that capture the sweep of black history: Paul Robeson (1991), Frederick Douglass (1994), Thurgood Marshall (2004), Rosa Parks on the Bus (2007), and an undated Barack Obama that looks to have come straight from the studio. From there on out you'll quickly see that Mills is usually at his best when he's chronicling figures from the world of black or black-influenced music. I'll offer up a partial list just to give you an idea of the scope of his project: Luther Allison, Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Tracy Chapman, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Art Farmer, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, B.B. King, Bob Marley, Mabel Mercer, Charlie Parker. It's a dizzying lineup that's a reminder of a rich, continuing cultural legacy, and Mills is entirely up to the challenge of capturing it in all its glory. (On display through January 2 at Gallery Six, Broward County Main Library, Sixth Floor, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale; call 954-357-7444.)
 
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