TERRIBLE AND BEAUTIFUL: Darius Steward, Clotilde Jimenez, and Race as a subject for artistic dialog
When we talk about race in Cleveland, conversation runs quickly toward headline stories, especially of white police officers and Black men or boys. Thanks to a couple of high profile shootings and the way the justice system responded, the city had a major role in the national discussion of race-related violence in 2015. That was the context in which I ran across technically exquisite watercolor paintings by Darius Steward, and boldly colorful, compellingly composed collage by Clotilde Jimenez—two artists whose work deals head-on with matters of race.
Steward’s work first came to my attention in a show of strikingly beautiful watercolors at William Busta Gallery early last year. Meanwhile, and separately, Jimenez’s works commanded attention in several group shows, including one at Waterloo Arts in which juror and Akron Art Museum curator Theresa Bembnister awarded him the top prize. Both are clearly artists to watch in the coming years–not simply because their work is beautiful (though it absolutely is) but because they have plied their skill to one of the region’s and the nation’s most important public dialogs.
Both artists deal with race matters, but not by making direct comment on the events that drive headlines. After knowing each other several years, the two joined forces at the end of 2015 for an exhibit at Forum Artspace. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world took its title from Ta Nehisi Coates’s New York Times bestseller, Between the World and Me, in which the author–in the form of a letter to his own adolescent son–describes how it has been for him to navigate as a Black man in a dangerously racist society. In the book Coates returns frequently to his awareness that at any time, he could lose control of his body. What he means by that is that he could be assaulted, or arrested, or otherwise abused at any time (outside a short list of safe places) because he is an African American. That fear is standard for him, a constant companion. It’s a strength of the book that it makes accessible to broad audiences this reality of day-to-day concerns held by black people.
That’s also a strength of Jimenez and Steward’s work: with serious technical skill in composition and color, and the handling of materials, they draw viewers in, and they make accessible to the overwhelmingly white Cleveland art audience details and thoughts about Black culture here. They’re not making broad, general statements, or telling anyone what to think. Rather they are giving food for thought, or offering prompts to encourage introspection, dialogue, and understanding.
Steward grew up in East Cleveland, then moved to Cleveland to attend the Cleveland School of the Arts, followed by the Cleveland Institute of Art for a BFA. He then followed a teacher, Troy Richards, to the University of Delaware, where he earned an MFA. He currently teaches drawing and painting at St. Ignatius High School, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. He’s one of the Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture’s 2016 Creative Workforce Fellows. A solo show of his new work opened March 4 at Maria Neil Art Project.
“I teach my classes based on the idea that art is a form of communication,” Steward says. “What are you going to communicate? For me, it’s always been social, political, and racial issues. I feel that technique is just a means to better say what I want to say.”
What Steward showed at Busta’s were small paintings of children, solitary on swings, lolling without momentum at the bottom of the pendulum’s arc, alone on the otherwise blank page as if there were nothing else in the world. His handling of watercolor is masterful, the puddling of water and pigment used to match the fall of light on surfaces, every brush stroke assured, never the muddy effect of correction. If the kids on swings appear to be sweet dreamers, Steward offers another perspective. To him, the swings represent wasted energy, and going nowhere. “I feel like that still,” he says. “Or not necessarily me, but Blacks everywhere. Are we going to get somewhere? From my point of view, I don’t see a lot of progress.”
At Forum, the paintings were larger and the imagery more aggressive in taking up perceptions about race. An image of a man on a swing, wearing a fedora, dark glasses, and a frown—a man with no children, hanging out in a playground—begs in the most open-ended way for interpretation, like the beginning of a story. If the children on swings seem to be daydreaming, then a man on a swing—perhaps of any race—seems idle, going nowhere. The viewer has to imagine the background of the painting, and the back story, as well. What are we to make not only of this man, but of a society that creates the context that has him passing time alone on a swing in a playround, and going nowhere?
Several of the paintings feature Black men pointing guns, both at themselves and others. In each of these their eyes closed or covered. “You never see the eyes,” Steward says. “It’s about being a blind shooter.” He refers to an incident in which a 5-month old baby was killed unintentionally in a drive-by. In most of these paintings, it seems the shooters don’t know or care what they are aiming at—except for one. In one picture, a man has a gun in each hand, both pointed at his own head. His eyes are closed, too.
Another of Steward’s motifs is figures holding blank sign placcards, or with empty thought bubbles above their heads—signs and spaces without words or symbols. Someone looking at that could easily read that these are people whose voices go unheard, or that they are people who are not given any voice. But Steward has a more productive dynamic in mind. “The blank signs are to get you in the door,” Steward says. “What would you put in that sign? It’s to get the conversation started.”
The converstion about race is continually evolving through time and across different media for Clotilde Jimenez. Raised in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia, he came to Cleveland and formally began his career in art at the Cleveland Institute of Art. “I didn’t know much about art, but I knew I liked to draw. I applied to study Illustration at the Institute, but I didn’t get in. Then Maggie Denk took me aside and showed me how my ideas could play in fine art. It was like fate, in a way.”
So Jimenez studied printmaking, and developed remarkable skill with figurative images in woodcuts. In a 2012 series called Black Man Run, he began to explore the role of race in his own life. Here the contrast of black ink on white made a conceptual parallel to the content of his images, which overtly showed black people as the alienated “other” in a white dominated world.
When he graduated in 2013, however, he found himself like so many print majors, without access to a press. He took the situation as an opportunity to evolve. “I had some paper left, so I began drawing and making collage. I couldn’t afford paint, but I had a lot of these free Vice magazines.” So, in the unstoppable, DIY way of people who simply need to create, he appropriated the magazine as raw material, cutting up the bold color to make his figurative collage. He gets Vice free from a store on Coventry, in Cleveland Heights.
In his collage, marked by warm, bright color, his explorations of race became more personal and nuanced. As he says, “It’s talking about issues I collide with every day. The work is self portraits of myself—how I see myself, or how others might see me.”
This line of exploration has earned plenty of attention from curators. Lane Cooper included his work in I Came So Far For Beauty in January and February in the Galleries at Cleveland State University. He’s one of 13 artists from across the state included in Go Figure, curated by Chuck McWeeney at the Ohio Art Council’s Riffe’s Gallery in Columbus, on view through March 23. Later in the year he’ll be in a show called RACE at the Wyndham Art Gallery in Melbourne, Australia. And he’s been invited by curator Naomi Beckwith (of MCA Chicago) to be part of the 8th El Museo del Barrio Biennial in New York.
Those matters of perception and self perception relate to the “performative, hypermasculinity” of the particular Black culture he came from. By his own description, that Philadelphia neighborhood was a place of misgided, backward ideology that emphasized material wealth: “money, clothes, and hoes,” he says. In that neighborhood, a man who diverted in any way from their strictly defined rules of masculine culture would be judged to be “gay.”
He says all the men there wanted to fight, and so he took up boxing, which he pursued from age 13 to 18. “There were things I learned from the men there. Jumping rope in the gym was very important. But outside the gym, if you got caught jumping rope, you’re gay.” Similarly, at the gym there was a particular pair of boxing gloves that no one wanted to use because they were pink. “Those were gay,” he deadpans, as if it were a fact, as if boxing gloves had sexuality, and as if it could rub off.
He says in his Philadelphia neighborhood he wouldn’t be able to wear certain sweaters, wouldn’t be able to draw a self portrait, or even read a book without being judged as gay. “I remember sitting at home and when I crossed my legs, my Mom said, ‘don’t do that,’ and my Dad said ‘WE don’t do that,’” as if to emphasize that we—father and son–were men. Straight men.
Jimenez answers the inevitable question by saying no, he is not gay. But these judgements that come from the culture of his race have an impact on his ability to be himself. When he came to Cleveland, and specifically the University Circle culture around CIA, it was the first time he found himself living with white people, doing normal things like eating and laughing. The exposure was revelatory of this specific aspect of what it meant to be Black. He saw that caucasian men his age were much more free to choose their clothes, and much more free in their mannerisms and behaviors to do things without being judged that way. “I’d see a frat boy in a pink polo shirt and Sperry shoes, and that was perfectly normal, and I’d think, what privelege does he have that I don’t have? I’m not going to say I know what white boys go through, but we go through it differently.”
The details of his collaged self portraits are full of liberties a Black man couldn’t have in his home neighborhood: Men and boys, some with legs crossed at the knee, a boxer jumping rope—manly enough—but with a pink varnished fingernail and high heeled shoes. Or, in another picture, two boys jumping rope together. Or a basketball player in red, high-heeled shoes. Or a boy putting on jeans, one leg at a time over his bright pink underwear.
As Jimenez writes in a statement, “It is my own quest for self-definition and analysis of what I know as black masculinity, and what it means to just be.”
It’s an idea any person, regardless of race, can understand. And maybe that kind of connection—the recognition of the self in the concerns of the other–is the most important part of conversations about race. When we talk about what artists can do for communities, we get hung up on economic benefits, or measurable things like school test scores. We almost never put out front the idea that that artists can help us connect to each other, help us see how and why we all might just get along. Put another way, if the public discussion of race relations in the news media has seemed to lack the necessary depth of culture, or has seemed to go for solutions as bold and satisfying as the headlines, maybe it’s time for artists like these to take the lead.