James Baldwin by Rico Gatson

 

THE YEAR 2019 is off to a promising start for artist Rico Gatson. Paying tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., he unveiled a mural titled “Mountain Top” at CityPlace, a shopping plaza and entertainment destination in downtown West Palm Beach, Fla. Also this month, he debuted a series of mosaic murals in the New York City subway system. Commissioned by the MTA Arts & Design, the installations are inspired by a series by Gatson that celebrates iconic political and cultural figures.

Brooklyn-based Gatson works in painting, sculpture, video, and installations. More than a decade ago, he began making striking works on paper dedicated to icons of black history. The works center around black-and-white photographic images of his subjects, including King, the Black Panthers, Nina Simone, Amiri Baraka, Muhammad Ali, and President Obama.

The figures are nearly overwhelmed by radiating rays of color emanating around them like light beams extending to the edges of the works. The hard-edge lines in all-black or a combination of primarily red, black, and green, symbolize black consciousness and Pan-Africanism and introduce dramatic geometry.

Blending figuration, conceptualism and abstraction, Gatson’s Icon series was on view at the Armory Show in 2017. The Ronald Feldman Gallery devoted its entire booth to works by the artist. The relatively small-scale works on paper were displayed on the exterior of the booth and drew the attention of passersby.

The next month, the Studio Museum in Harlem presented “Rico Gatson: Icons 2007–2017” (April 20-Aug. 27, 2017) featuring a selection of colored pencil, marker, and photocollage works on paper from the series. After captivating art fair patrons and museum goers, Gatson’s works are enjoying a wider public audience—New York City subway riders.

 


Installation view of portrait of Afro-Cuban singer Celia Cruz, part of mosaic mural series “Beacons” (2018) by Rico Gatson at 167th Street subway station. | Commissioned by MTA Arts & Design, Image Courtesy MTA, © Rico Gatson

 

THE ARTIST CREATED eight mosaic portraits for the 167th Street subway station in the Bronx. Unveiled earlier this month, the public art installations feature African American and Latino figures with connections to the borough, including James Baldwin, Gil Scott-Heron, Maya Angelou, Audrey Lorde, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“Each subject has impacted me and my worldview by shaping how I think about art and politics,” Gatson told Hyperallergic. He added: “And on a personal level, it is an honor to celebrate and pay homage to my heroes in such a public and permanent way.”

“Each subject has impacted me and my worldview by shaping how I think about art and politics. …it is an honor to celebrate and pay homage to my heroes in such a public and permanent way.” — Rico Gatson

Titled “Beacons,” the portraits in the subway series feature an expanded color palette. In addition to the Pan-African colors of red, black, and green, the geometric lines prominently include yellow and orange referencing beams of sunlight, and radiating beauty, cultural pride, and positive energy.

Miotto Mosaic Art Studios translated Gatson’s portraits into mosaic form and installed the works. The artist also acknowledges the photographers whose work inspired the images of four women and four men:

    Southbound Platform

  • Gil Scott-Heron | from a photograph by Paul Natkin
  • Audre Lorde | from a photograph by Jack Mitchell
  • Celia Cruz | from a photograph owned by Celia Cruz Entertainment LLC
  • James Baldwin | from a photograph by Steve Schapiro
  • Northbound Platform

  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor | from a photograph by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
  • Reggie Jackson | from a photograph by Doug McWilliams/National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
  • Tito Puente | from a photograph by Martin Cohen
  • Maya Angelou | from a photograph by Brian Lanker

Gatson, who had a solo exhibition at the end of 2018 at Ronald Feldman Gallery, marvels at the fact that his subway installations are on view permanently. He told Spectrum New NY1: “Just the idea that I have a permanent installation, something that potentially my grandchildren can experience leaves me without words.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: RICO GATSON, Portrait of author and activist James Baldwin derived from a photograph by Steve Schapiro, part of mosaic mural series “Beacons” (2018), 167th Street subway station, New York, N.Y. | Courtesy MTA, © Rico Gatson

 

BOOKSHELF
James Baldwin’s writings—“If Beale Street Could Talk” and “I Am Not Your Negro”—have been made into critically acclaimed films. “James Baldwin: The FBI File” was recently published. In 2014, Sonia Sotomayor wrote a memoir “My Beloved World” about her experience growing up in a Bronx housing project and going on to attend Princeton University and Yale Law School. Her pioneering rise to the U.S. Supreme Court also inspired several children’s books.

 


Artist Rico Gatson talks about the meaning behind his works and his choice of color palette. | Video by TheEditorial.com

 


RICO GATSON, Portrait of poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron derived from a photograph by Paul Natkin, part of mosaic mural series “Beacons” (2018), 167th Street subway station, New York, N.Y. | Courtesy MTA, © Rico Gatson

 


RICO GATSON, Portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor derived from a photograph by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, part of mosaic mural series “Beacons” (2018), 167th Street subway station, New York, N.Y. | Courtesy MTA, © Rico Gatson

 


RICO GATSON, Portrait of baseball legend Reggie Jackson derived from a photograph by Doug McWilliams, part of mosaic mural series “Beacons” (2018), 167th Street subway station, New York, N.Y. | Courtesy MTA, © Rico Gatson

 

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