A Place in Time

It was the Haitian art featured in "Haitian Celebration: South Florida Collects Haitian Art" that lured me to the Coral Springs Museum of Art, way out in the suburban sprawl of northwest Broward. And a fine show it is: 88 pieces in various media by 62 artists, the works drawn primarily from the private collections of South Floridians, along with a pair of pieces on loan from the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

The exhibition includes representative works from the various "schools" of Haitian art: the delicately detailed urban scenes of the Cap-Haïtien artists, the ghostly figures of the Saint Soleil painters, beaded and sequined vodou flags, and paintings of mysterious vodou ceremonies presided over by strange anthropomorphic animals.

The rituals that give shape to Haitian lives are here, along with the vivid tropical flora and fauna so often associated with Haitian art. The show provides a good sense of the enormous stylistic diversity of the island country's art, and there are pieces by such acknowledged masters as Hector Hyppolite, Wilson Bigaud, and Stivenson Magloire.

But as beautifully put together as "Haitian Celebration" is -- and it has a small but extensively researched catalog to go with it -- it's overshadowed by a second exhibition at the Coral Springs Museum. (And in the interest of full disclosure I should mention here that it wasn't until I got to the museum that I discovered that the Haitian show's guest curator is Candice Russell, an old friend from whom I've bought more than a dozen pieces of Haitian art over the years.)

That second show is "A Sense of Place: Gullah Images," which is made up of the works of an extraordinary young artist named Jonathan Green. There are more than 40 works on display in the museum's spacious main gallery, most in oil on canvas, Masonite, or linen; a few in acrylic; and nearly a dozen pieces in the form of painted wooden boxes-within-boxes.

Green, who's in his mid-forties, was born in Gardens Corner, South Carolina, and now lives and works in Naples, Florida. Green grew up steeped in Gullah, the distinctive African-American culture and language that developed among the descendants of slaves in the lower river estuary communities and on the sea islands of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. His art is a reconstruction of those experiences.

Like so much Haitian art, Green's Gullah images are often exuberant celebrations of daily life. According to his artist's statement: "I am drawn to rural environments that afford a sense of space and silence and an opportunity to unobtrusively observe daily functions of others as we all pursue life's mission of work, love and belonging. Agrarian life allows me to experience how we work in harmony with the mysterious and changing fabric of nature. It is the small, but critical tasks of daily life that I find most stimulating and reflective of the quality of essential personal, community, and social values."

But Green is far removed from the traditions of folk and primitive art. He got his B.F.A. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early '80s, then spent more than a decade traveling and studying throughout the U.S. and ten other countries in North America and Europe. His Gullah images are painted not directly from life but from a distance, from his memories of a life he long ago left behind.

In some of Green's paintings from the mid-to-late '80s, the emphasis is on stark compositions and dark colors -- a moody palette of rich browns and blacks that seems to heighten the sense of Gullah as a hermetic, isolated culture. In such oils as Fruit Pickers (1985) and Low Country Hunter (1986), he renders his subjects inscrutable, with stylized oval heads lacking distinguishing features of any sort on their brown and black surfaces. With Neptune (1988) he goes so far as to reduce his subject to a featureless black head and shoulders on a simple blue background. The lines in these pictures are so crisp and clean that they almost suggest cutout figures that have been glued onto the Masonite.

In sharp contrast Green sometimes turns to brighter colors and livelier, more crowded compositions. The large oil on canvas Yemassee Lounge (1990) gives us a densely packed dance floor at a hangout in a town near where the artist grew up. In the foreground we see men and women of varying hues dressed in flamboyant outfits and clinging tightly to their partners, while stretching behind them is a sea of heads that suggests that the Yemassee Lounge is one hopping place.

It's in his large landscapes that Green really hits his stride. The exhibition begins with an approximately four-foot-by-six-foot piece called Stewart's Farm (1995), a simple composition with big cottony clouds and soaring birds above a few buildings set on lush green land along a river. It's a striking work, but nothing to prepare us for what's to come.

Around a corner is the breathtaking oil on Masonite The River (1988), in which three shirtless men stand in waist-deep water, each holding a long red stick, surrounded by palm trees and reedy grasses. The colors are rich and dark, and the men with their strange wands suggest a ritual of some sort, a rite of passage in the swampy wilderness.

Farther on is The Meadow (1990), another large (as in six-foot-by-ten-foot) landscape consisting of a field dotted with dozens of haystacks, along with two trees and two horses. It's Green's version of impressionism, with perhaps a touch of cubism thrown in, with almost everything in the painting made up of little daubs of pigment that start out quarter-size in the foreground and then get progressively smaller as they recede into the background.

With Memories (1990) Green introduces what turns out to be a favorite element into the landscape: white sheets on clotheslines, flapping in the wind. Here they take up maybe half of the canvas, with the rest of the space devoted to a bright red house, birds in the yard, autumnal trees, and a Hula-Hoop leaning against one tree.

Green gets the same sense of airy motion in Dancing Hat (2000), in which a broad orange hat with a long, thick white ribbon is chased across a grassy meadow by a large woman in a billowy white dress. And in one painted wooden box, he brings his sheet-bedecked clotheslines, haystacks, and women in wide-brimmed hats together in one piece, with the tongue-in-cheek title Homage to Sheets (2000).

As the exhibition's title indicates, Green's Gullah images are all about a sense of place. But as I indicated earlier, it's a place the artist re-creates from a distinct remove, and therein lies a sense of poignance. Green is, in effect, in self-imposed exile from his past, from the Gullah culture that, having always existed precariously on the fringes of mainstream Southern culture, may now be on the verge of being absorbed altogether.

As someone born and raised in the Deep South, I always saw the movie version of Gone With the Wind not as star-studded Technicolor melodrama on an epic scale, but as an elegy for a vanishing way of life. Not the way of life that rationalized the slavery that was its ultimate undoing but one that embraced old-fashioned Southern hospitality and romantic chivalry -- a sense of place and belonging to that place, despite the apparent inevitability of its passing. That's the sort of sense of place I think Green is seeking in his Gullah images, and he achieves it magnificently.

"Haitian Celebration: South Florida Collects Haitian Art" and "A Sense of Place: Gullah Images" are on display through July 16 at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, Coral Springs City Centre, 2855 Coral Springs Dr., Coral Springs, 954-340-5000.

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Michael Mills