AN EXPRESSIVE COLLAGE TECHNIQUE introduces both tactile and narrative dimensions to Benny Andrews‘s (1930-2006) canvases. Evoking a tangible sense of pride, strength and strife, his textural paintings articulate remembrances from his childhood in the segregated South and the socio-political issues about which he was passionate throughout his career in New York.
The first comprehensive survey of his work since his death, “There Must Be a Heaven” was on view at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery from March 19 to May 24, 2013. Created between 1964 and 2005, the oil and mixed-media collage works explore American identity, prisons, war, migration, farming and the challenges and dignity of black life.
Published to coincide with the exhibit, the catalog “Benny Andrews: There Must Be a Heaven” contains vivid color plates of more than 40 paintings by Andrews and essays by Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Lowery Stokes Sims, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design. A foot soldier in the fight for civil rights and one of the art world’s most accomplished thought leaders? Indeed, the unique pairing is an indication of Andrews’s origins and point-of-view, as well as the significance of his practice.
In the catalog’s foreword, Lewis writes that from the moment they met, he and Andrews connected. Both sons of sharecroppers, “We both grew up in the bitter hardship of a segregated South, and we both were determined never to accept it,” the congressman says.
A Freedom Rider, SNCC chairman and the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis says Andrews “uses the canvas to speak truth to power” and offers a heartfelt tribute to his talent and motivations:
“For Benny, there was no line where his activism ended and his art began. To him, using his brush and his pen to capture the essence and spirit of his time was as much an act of protest as sitting in or sitting down was for me.”
— John Lewis
A friend of Andrews for more than 40 years, Sims contributes a thoughtful, 12-page assessment of his body of work. “There are few black artists who have so unambiguously embraced and declared their race and culture,” she writes.
Associating his influences with Social Realists “he fell in with” when he arrived in New York, Sims describes them as “a cohort of individuals who bridged the gap between abstraction and figuration…the use of energetic color and gesture, and a sensibility that would be described as gritty.” She examines Andrews’s collage technique, rural origins, leadership and activism in the art community and artistic legacy.
Sims on his chosen medium:
“Andrews’s use of collage came out of that fact that he found oil painting ‘too academic’ and imbued with more ‘sophisticated’ associations. He found the textural quality of collage appealing, and he used it to ‘keep himself off balance.'” — Lowery Stokes Sims
Sims on his approach to collage:
“Andrews did not simply cut and apply cloth; he relied on its texture and pattern to function within the composition, to provoke responses, and convey meaning.” — Lowery Stokes Sims
Sims on the benefits of techniques:
“For him, two and three-dimensional approaches should work in harmony. This approach gave Andrews a potent arsenal of expressive techniques at his disposal, enabling him to convey to the viewer that although the figures in his work were not necessarily exact portraits, they were definitely ‘real people,’ with ‘histories,’ that would ‘talk’ to him.”
— Lowery Stokes Sims
Ultimately, Andrews’s work captures the human experience. As younger artists in increasing numbers are adapting their practices to include “social production” and respond to public policies and effect change, Sims says Andrews “would certainly applaud this level of commitment to social change and betterment.” CT
“Benny Andrews: There Must Be a Heaven” by Benny Andrews (Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 140 pages) | Published Jan. 1, 2013
IMAGES: Reproduced from the catalog “Benny Andrews There Must Be a Heaven.”