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Blasting the Stereo

Works by two artists with very different styles and very similar concerns are currently on display in a joint exhibition at the Schmidt Center Gallery -- if you can find the place. I spent close to an hour wandering around the confusing, poorly marked Boca Raton campus of Florida Atlantic University before finally locating the gallery, which is in the Performing Arts building instead of the adjacent Visual Arts complex. Go figure -- or at least call for specific directions before you set out.

The show, "Stereo Typocal Errors," features a dozen or so pieces each by Michael Ray Charles and Joyce J. Scott, African-American artists preoccupied with racial stereotypes that have insinuated themselves deep into American culture. Both Charles and Scott set out to expose the effects of such stereotyping -- which Florida A&M University art professor Gylbert Coker, in his exhibition brochure, calls "cultural slander" -- and both use humor as a subversive tool in their arsenals.

Beyond that the two part ways (although the gallery opts wisely, I think, to mingle their works rather than separating them in different areas of the display space). Charles works in two dimensions, using primarily acrylic latex, supplemented by various other media, to make paintings that re-create the look of old circus and carnival posters. The implication, of course, is that blacks have been systematically dehumanized by images that reduce them to sideshow freaks or leftover anachronisms from vaudeville minstrel shows.

Nowhere is this more shockingly evident than in Charles' (Forever Free) "Stuck" the Duck Boy, a 1996 canvas that features a grotesquely contorted black boy bearing trademark exaggerations associated with the so-called "African native": an elongated neck banded with metal rings, a big earring, massive protruding lips. (About all he's missing is a bone through the nose.) "It's Alive," screams the caption in one corner, and to reinforce the crudeness of the image, Charles has left it, unstretched and unframed, nailed to the wall.

(Forever Free) The Great White Hope, from 1994, is a similarly garish faux poster with a black man incongruously clad in slacks, white dress shirt, necktie, and red boxing gloves with white stars. The streaky pigment looks haphazardly applied to the paper, with a set of huge red lips that seem almost superimposed onto the figure as a final touch to emphasize the image's offensiveness.

The parenthetical "pre-title" Forever Free is attached to most of the pieces shown here, and, in many cases, Charles has also worked a copper penny into the composition, invariably head side up but painted over, so that you have to be looking for it to see it. Are these touches a sincere nod to Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator or an ironic dig at someone who naively believed in the significance of his actions? I suspect the latter, but either way I think they're heavy-handed oversimplifications that ultimately detract from the pictures.

Charles is on much firmer ground with a trio of large 1997 posters displayed side by side on one freestanding wall. The titles, emblazoned onto the paper in big, bold letters, are Please! "Be Careful Sir"; Can I Be of Any Assistance?; and Have a Nice Day! -- all thinly veiled references to the stereotype of blacks as service personnel.

The words have bite, but more effective still are the visuals. In the center of each poster is a slight variant of the same image: a black man's face, its features stretched into a frighteningly devilish caricature, with a pair of crossbones behind it. A sizable chunk of skull has been removed from the center of each head, and the oversize, bright red mouths of two of them are unmistakably meant to suggest slices of watermelon. The posters have also been artificially aged to look as if they have been folded and refolded, hung and rehung.

Charles gets an astonishing amount of mileage out of this drastically boiled-down image. Its handful of elements manages to suggest, simultaneously, the mindlessness of menial labor, the toxicity of black stereotypes, and the tenacity of myths and misperceptions about blacks.

This makeshift triptych is easily one of Charles' strongest statements in the show. Comparable is a 1994 piece called Cut and Paste, which includes a line drawing of a figure who looks like a cross between Sambo and Mickey Mouse, surrounded by a variety of items enclosed by the sort of dotted lines used for paper-doll accessories. The disarming humor gives way to alarm, however, when we realize what the objects are: a gun, a knife, a football, a banana, a necktie, a purse, and a paintbrush. Again Charles makes his provocative points with minimal material.

Joyce J. Scott uses dramatically different media and techniques to express, essentially, the same thematic concerns as Charles, but not surprisingly there's a pronounced feminist slant to her work. Her primary medium is beaded sculpture (at least here -- a biographical note indicates that she's also a performance artist), fleshed out in some pieces with other mixed-media elements that bolster her ideas.

A 1991 selection from her Nanny Series called No Mommy Me #2, for instance, includes a black woman fashioned from glass beads, leather, and cloth holding an oversize color photo of a white infant, while the woman's own child, appropriately scaled, sits neglected nearby. Subtle? No, but the point comes across with jarring directness.

For other pieces Scott conjures up imagery that's more complex and more evocative. The exhibition includes three pieces from a series that takes on the demonization of black male sexuality, a topic so ripe with possibilities that Scott is able to go at it from a variety of directions. For Cuddly Black Dick (Thinking of A), she goes at it head-on, giving us a blond, rosy-cheeked white woman sprawled suggestively on a wire-mesh settee, gazing into space as she ponders the title object, the word object being key to Scott's conceptualization.

The other two representatives from the series are less blatant, yet more effective in their obliqueness. Cuddly Black Dick #4 is an unsettling conglomeration of elements, including a clear jar filled with bone fragments and capped with a gold beaded lid; what appears to be a green beaded lizard wrapped around the jar; and a Medusa's head of gold beaded wires snaking up the jar, with tiny ceramic skulls embedded here and there in the wires. The crowning touch is a purplish set of beaded male genitals plunging headfirst through the jar's lid. A small, cherubic, white child of indeterminate gender sits astride the phallus as if riding a horse.

Scott ventures further into metaphor with Cuddly Black Dick #2, which is a hermaphroditic creature, made of metallic ceramic beads, with breasts and a huge penis. Its head is that of an antelope, carved from wood in the manner of a tribal totem, and its upraised arms grasp a large eyeball. The creature, legs spread far apart, is also attached to a miniature wire structure that holds it above a square of milky stained glass with an eye painted on it.

I'm not quite sure what Scott is up to with some of these pieces, but they certainly pack a visual wallop. They're also slyly, dryly witty, as is the artist's Buddha Gives Basketball to the Ghetto.

But Scott is at her most powerful when she throws caution to the wind and goes in for the kill. Her ambitious 1995 mixed-media piece Somebody's Baby is a prime example. Hanging from the ceiling on strands of green beads that form a sort of cage is a large, mangled black body. Below it, on the floor, is a skull made of grains of rice. A ghostly white figure crouches on the body's head and shoulders, chunks of unidentifiable objects jut from its flesh, and the words nigger and hate are beaded onto its skin. There's no ambiguity here, just harrowing reminders of the legacy of racial strife.

There is no doubt some people will take offense at Michael Ray Charles' and Joyce J. Scott's use of such emotionally charged, potentially controversial imagery. That these images are still so volatile, however, is ample evidence of a need for art that addresses the issues they raise.

"Stereo Typocal Errors" is on display through March 21 at the Schmidt Center Gallery, Florida Atlantic University, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton, 561-297-2966.

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Michael Mills

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