Monday, May 19, 2008

Migration: Panels of Social Evolution Tell Timeless Tales

The Jacob Lawrence show at the Phillips Collection is at once a homecoming and a reunion. His Migration series has migrated in its entirety back to the Phillips, probably the first time in sixty-some-odd years all sixty panels have hung in the same room at the same time, since the Dupont Circle gallery hosted the original DC show – keeping the odd-numbered half of the panels for what even then was a pittance. Just one thousand dollars.

It’s an unbound picturebook of racial urbanization. Field workers making a dollar a day could double that wage in a Northern factory. (The price of exploitative hand labor is still two dollars a day one hundred years later.)

The hard journey – no interstates, no plumbing, yucky and dangerous.

These humble panels, yellowed paper, stickly frames, spare silhouettes emotionally convey the tenuous times of a century ago. Exchange Latinos for African Americans, multiply by ten, and you have today’s migration. The same tenuous existence, the same hundred years later.

Lawrence laid out all the paper panels and used a dark-to-light, paint-by-number, assembly-line process. He worked with inexpensive casein paints in a highly polished folk style: too expressive to be considered primitive; too informative to be cartoons. His palette is stark and basic. He says he likes paints “right out of the jar” and doesn’t mix colors.

Lawrence is one of the first art stars. He leveraged his work into a teaching career, and the embodiment of the Harlem-developed art, after his WWII Coast Guard stint. In the second room of the exhibit, a marvelous ten-minute video from 2000 shows Lawrence days before his death, verbally reinforcing the painterly basics of light, line, and color.

The Phillips Collection Education Department’s Migration/Jacob Lawrence Teaching Kit is simply super for any group. Lawrence’s emphasis on basic forms and colors is a perfect foundation for budding artists.

Concurrently, art from the Young Artists Exhibition Program will feature works by students age 6 to 16 that explore their own family history.

The Great American Epic
On view through Oct. 26.
The Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street, NW
Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Thursday Artful Evenings until 8:30 p.m.

A free family festival will be held at the Phillips on June 7–8 with live jazz and theater, art activities, puppet shows, and poetry workshops.

Posted by Kevin Tierney