Recently the Brooklyn Museum launched an important new exhibit entitled, "Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties." They had been in dialogue with Alaina Simone, the director of the Merton Simpson Gallery, to obtain a painting by the late painter, collector, gallery owner and tribal art expert. He had been a leading member of the "Spiral Artist Collective" with impressive friends, including Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff, his former professor and mentor from NYU. It was one of many pivotal organized movements in the art world by African American artists during the civil rights revolution.
Proud son, Merton Simpson Jr., an Albany legislator along with his impressive gallery director Alaina Simone provided them with Simpson Sr.'s 1965 version of an American "Guernica," called "U.S.A.," a weighty abstract expressionist black-and-white painting historically capturing the mood of the times.
The Merton Simpson Gallery has been the subject of much controversy with all sorts of characters trying to capitalize on the name, the collection, and whatever money they can drain out of the gallery. Some pretty interesting well-heeled and suspicious people who have cloaked themselves ostensibly in righteousness to help the gallery have in fact not only been hindrances, but have nearly caused the gallery to close because of their greed. Many things that have been reported are not true; manufactured for the convenience of others, including there being no money for the late Merton Simpson's burial.
Yet, Simpson Jr. remains undaunted in his desire to keep his father's legacy thriving. His greatest wish is to see it continue and with the help of Ms. Simone, they have managed to do so by sheer will. As Ms. Simone says, "She would protect Mr. Simpson's extensive archives with her life," since they chronicle a lifetime of thousands of works bought and sold by Mr. Simpson. Their historic value in so much as they trace and document each piece is worth well over 1.75 million dollars.
Both of Simpson's sons had not been involved much with the gallery during their father's lifetime. Simpson Jr.'s choices were different; supporting people's rights as a politician is more in line with who he became. He and his brother Ken stayed out of the art business and allowed their father his dignity and privacy till the end of his days, until Simpson Sr. requested that his eldest son, Merton Jr. take over from an influential and powerful friend he had appointed power of attorney and had not acted in anyone's best interest, but his own.
On March 13th I visited the Merton Simpson Gallery and it seemed that Simpson Jr. and Alaina Simone are breathing exciting fresh energy into the gallery. Simone presented an important new show, ICONOMANIA. The room was buzzing with refreshed optimism as the beautiful Ms. Simone graciously welcomed everyone to view the show, listen to great music and share a glass of good wine.
I found it moving and unique, blending traditional African ceremonial pieces and colorful contemporary iconography with a through line of color and pattern to accent statement.
One of the most poignant works on exhibit is Tyrone Mitchell's, "Coltrane's Horse." Deeply moving, his work goes far beyond the simplicity of the surface of what we see, not shaped only by his African cultural heritage, but by his American inheritance of virtues and failures without distinction of color, but expression of soul. An excerpt from a Walt Whitman poem, "Song to myself" written on the newly carved pristine core of a piece of salvaged building from a former 500-year-old Chinese temple. "Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me, If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me," acts as the psychic conduit fusing together this sculpture.
At its base, exquisitely carved flower motifs decorate the foundation. Traditional African patterns ornament the ovalescent center while the figure is surrounded at top and bottom with the inherited African motifs of the nation he was born to -- but what is inside Mr. Mitchell is boundless without physical context to distinguish him from any other. By carving the sculpture, he rejuvenates the tree from which it came and reveals an untouched surface, transcending our linear existence. Like a "sunrise" this piece emerges from from its aged encasement as temple to its new symbolic form. Until we are relieved of only seeing the obvious, we cannot enter the realm of endless possibilities, where we can reclaim, and therefore reshape our existence.
Interspersed are the arcane Bundu Helmut masks of the Mende tradition in Liberia. The erotic masks of the secret society of Sande women are crowned with carved vaginal fans, announcing the right of passage for young women while sustaining the practice of circumcision that is part of their arrival to womanhood.
Frances Acea's ominous, but amusing black mask images on paper speak to his take on enmity and the Illuminati. They were delightfully scary and ominous.
Arron Phillips covers his face in black grease paint while sharing the canvas with 2 masks which he dubs "Happiness" and "Hell," the worlds he wrestles between.
There are large canvasses from emerging artists Noel Leon with Minnie and Mickey Mouse readdressed, along with photographs which invite us to wonder, embrace, and acknowledge iconography. Feeding through this theme are strategically presented patterns as displayed in Lillya Lifanova's obsessive works of rolled paper on canvas.
This is an exhibit Merton Simpson himself would have enjoyed -- as it goes further than the eye can see, and blends a multicultural cast of artists ranging from 20-60 years old. I am sure wherever Simpson Sr. is, he is, over the moon (so to speak) and proudly encouraging Merton Simpson Jr. and Alaina Simone to fight the good fight and keep up the good work! It's all worth it, to keep the legacy intact for generations to come. Buoy up your spirit and go see the show!
Stay tuned for future articles on http://www.mertonsimpsongallery.com/art/