“Art Finds a Way,” one of three exhibitions the Norton Museum opened this month, is a study in prophetic power. Curated mostly from the museum’s permanent collection, it was organized around themes of racial justice as a necessary response to the national reckoning following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
Yet all but one of the selections was completed before 2020. Is their prescience in speaking to the present moment a result of the artist as psychic, forecasting the events of last summer? Or, more troublingly, do the works provoke and inspire us afresh because so little has changed through the years, and even the decades, from the standpoint of racial disparity?
The answer is probably yes to both: Great art is immortal, speaking to its time and beyond it, and the arc of history still needs to bend a lot more before reaching equal justice under the law. The earliest works in “Art Finds a Way,” two mid-‘50s photographs from Gordon Parks, illustrate both how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.
In one, a Black family dutifully drinks from a “coloreds only” water fountain, crowding around the cooler while the nearby “whites only” fountain sits vacant, an image of a primitive America that, on its face, looks more absurd than cruel to generations that didn’t live through the scourge of Jim Crow. The forced separation between races belies the companionable cheerfulness of the dessert advertisements in the shop window behind the fountains, their sweetness curdling into sourness knowing the family outside likely can’t enjoy them. In the other Parks photo, “Window Shopping,” a Black child gazes at a tableau of mannequins in a store window, all of them lily-white; her likeness is denied as much her entry into the store’s rarefied world.
It’s a world of privilege that the contemporary artist Robert Pruitt enjoys puncturing in “New Kiddz on the Block,” in which the artist digitally alters a Norman Rockwell painting (“New Kids in the Neighborhood,” 1967), tagging the original image’s moving van with graffiti, and even supplying the frame with subversive hip-hop albums.
If Pruitt wields humor as a weapon against racism, other works in “Art Finds a Way” deploy righteous anger. Betye Saar’s 1998 classic “Lest We Forget The Strength of Tears / The Fragility of Smiles / The Fierceness of Love,” a washboard-based triptych of slave blood and corrosive stereotypes, would resonate in any year but especially this one. Its placement of an Aunt Jemima collectible figure clutching an assault weapon and preparing for her liberation was far ahead of its time; only last year, you’ll recall, was the degrading Jemima character finally put to pasture. Kara Walker’s tapestry “A Warm Summer Evening in 1863” is a similarly indelible work that offers a blunt probe into our shameful history, a painstaking re-creation of a painting of a riot at a “Negro” orphanage, atop which Walker has placed a silhouette of a hanged woman—a perennially haunting jolt to the senses.
Elsewhere, the messaging is more ambivalent, the tones more meditative. Hank Willis Thomas’ fiberglass sculpture “Opportunity” offers a shiny, muscular arm poised to catch a glistening football; whether the image expresses the commodification of athletes or the deification of them is in the eye of the beholder. I was particularly taken with Dominic Chambers’ “A Moment in Yellow,” a painting of two dark-skinned figures at rest in a bucolic outdoor scene, against a billowing canary sky. Part of the artist’s inspiration, he reveals in his statement, is that Black figures are rarely depicted at rest; seeing this singularly lovely work, we realize how accurate that assessment is.
Still other pieces seem to project where we are now, reflecting a post-pandemic world as much as one reckoning with its history of racism. Jeff Wall’s “Poppies in a Garden,” a photo transparency shining through a light box of the titular flowers in a home garden, grants an everyday image a hallowed, even reverential treatment, suggesting a reawakening with the natural world that so many have experienced over the last 10 months. Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s “Super Blue Omo” is the exhibit’s most impeccably soulful work, and the piece most evocative of the lockdown isolation of the past year, as its lonely figure sits indoors and watches a bright ad on television; part of the canvas features a collage of Nigerian advertising and the false sense of happiness it offers.
Ironically enough, the only 2020 work in the show may be the most mysterious, the most timeless. In Claudia Rawles’ “Guardian,” a painting of magisterial realism, a girl is semi-submerged in a body of water, a symbol of liberation but also, in Rawles’ vision, of negation: The figure is faceless and therefore anonymous, her visage blurred and obscured by the water. Her identity is unknown, her future is uncertain, yet she has taken the plunge—just as we are, into a tumultuous 2021.
“Art Finds a Way” runs through May 30 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. The museum is open Fridays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $18 adults, $15 seniors and $5 students. For information, call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.