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Tyrone Geter: Black!

The Art of Tyrone Geter: BLACK!
I
The art of Tyrone Geter extends the most important 20th century development in African American visual arts—the emergence of a black figurative tradition. Whereas caricature and stereotypic distortions of black physiognomy defined black iconography early in the 20th century, African American artists rejected the depictions and strove to create a positive, empathetic image of black Americans. Meta Warrick Fuller, Augusta Savage, Archibald Motley and others pioneered sympathetic portrayals of blacks and black life in art. The generation that followed—Lois Mailou Jones, Hale Woodruff, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers, Herman “Kofi” Bailey, and John Wilson—soon produced a robust figurative tradition that elevated how black people saw themselves. By the third quarter of the century, black representation had become effectively humanized and greatly broadened in its purview. Within Geter’s own generation, muscular figurative expression blossomed with the work of artists such as Calvin Jones, Jon Lockhard, Pheoris West, Paul Goodnight and Barkley Hendricks.

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The Art of Tyrone Geter: BLACK!
I
The art of Tyrone Geter extends the most important 20th century development in African American visual arts—the emergence of a black figurative tradition. Whereas caricature and stereotypic distortions of black physiognomy defined black iconography early in the 20th century, African American artists rejected the depictions and strove to create a positive, empathetic image of black Americans. Meta Warrick Fuller, Augusta Savage, Archibald Motley and others pioneered sympathetic portrayals of blacks and black life in art. The generation that followed—Lois Mailou Jones, Hale Woodruff, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers, Herman “Kofi” Bailey, and John Wilson—soon produced a robust figurative tradition that elevated how black people saw themselves. By the third quarter of the century, black representation had become effectively humanized and greatly broadened in its purview. Within Geter’s own generation, muscular figurative expression blossomed with the work of artists such as Calvin Jones, Jon Lockhard, Pheoris West, Paul Goodnight and Barkley Hendricks.
As American art inclined toward various modes of abstraction and conceptual formulations over the century, a significant segment of African American artists remained doggedly committed to figuration and made it their modernistic response. As the Euro-American art community made abstraction via Cubism its revolt against the dominance of Renaissance/Baroque representationalism, African American artists made figuration their revolt against the stereotypic distortions of black imagery that abounded in American fine and popular arts. Proponents of black figuration rescued the soul of black people from distortion and created a context that would support an infinitely wider visual vocabulary for articulating African American experiences.


II
Tyrone Geter is a storyteller both through his language and the visual narratives that he weaves. He is not a narrative painter such as John Biggers, nor is he a serial muralist like Jacob Lawrence. Rather, he is complicated amalgam of John Biggers and Charles White infused with Toni Morrison, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes. Like Dunbar and Hughes, he loves the sound and rich associations of black vernacular speech as evinced by his titles. He enjoys the sharp wit and stings that hide in popular speech associated with “rap” and “Hip-Hop” culture. Like Morrison, he deeply appreciates how race inflects all aspects of American life, and how racism’s face is sometimes surreal. Further, he manipulates these elements by yoking together the soulful poetry of his figurative imagery with the abstract layering of torn paper. The result creates surprisingly fresh visual documents. Geter, always playful, evolves his layered paintings into installations that flow out and spill into the room. Yet just as the viewer is seduced by formal elements, her eye may fall upon a snippet of text that immediately throws everything back into harsh realities that daily inform and plague black life. In between the elegance of the art as art and the gravity of its message resides the story being told—a narrative that is as old as the history of American slavery and as fresh as this morning’s paper.
The story as Geter tells it is sometimes heroic, passionate and descriptively powerful, perhaps recalling figures from White’s influential book “Images of Dignity.” At other times, he is as richly observant of today’s streets and characters as Biggers images of Houston’s Fourth Ward. In all cases, Geter brings to his work not just an appreciation of others that he admires, but also his own eyes and intuitions informed by a wealth of travel and study. Like Hughes, black people here and on the continent have been his study for decades. He knows their manners and swagger, and uses this knowledge to construct works.

III
BLACK! examines several omnipresent themes in the experience of black Americans. Geter probes these subjects through the multiple or serial works and sometimes through works with multiple parts. Five thematic series are represented in BLACK!
A Generation of Grannies, from Black Works (2008), the earliest series in the show, introduces black communities through its assertion of matriarchal familial values and its declaration of familial respectability. The grannies are a foil for more problematic situations of intra and inter communal conflict and violence that arise in the aftermath of the rape of a continent followed by slavery, Jim Crow, and neo-Jim Crow demonization and incarceration. In this context, cross currents of violence and healing battle daily in the racialized maelstrom that is urban America. Mother Nature’s last in-house domestic worker, from the Southern breeze series, introduces a wizened old woman who asks for the opportunity to give her child what her labor has easily made possible for her employer and his family. Her image is flanked by a daughter on her knees cleaning a floor on one side and a pair of daughters fixing hair on the other. By their simple act of grooming, the latter pair demonstrates the love that binds them together as well as underscoring the importance of caring about each other irrespective of the circumstances.
It is from the Ain’t I a woman series that the largest number of works are drawn. In this series, Geter offers his sharpest critique of misogyny in contemporary black popular culture. First, he establishes the centrality of women in family and community life, reminding us of the profound way in which women are the source of life and nurture. They alone are the blood link to lineage and they alone perform the labor that is at the heart of the mystery of life. In I don old. I done tire but I ain’t done no ways done and in Burdens, he highlights these points by making the women’s hair into roots the spread out gathering all that is needed to sustain growth and developments. Like trees, they endure, as they convert light, water, and air into energy that shoots like fire from their heads, electrifying everything around them. They are at once beautiful and terrifying in their power.
Geter rejects the popular use of the word bitch as applied to women. He flags it as degrading and oppressive. Unsparingly, he assaults the misguided notions of masculinity that seek realization by reducing women to sex objects to be used and abused. No other point can be taken from Calling me a bitch won’t make you a man where, in the present of a presiding female spirit, a chastened man—eyes cast down in humiliation—is castigated for his presumptions. Simultaneously, in I ain’t nobody’s bitch, Geter affirms a feminist stance that rejects commodification and affirms independence and agency. In the upper panel, a woman stands akimbo—hands on hips—prepared to taken on any challenges to her freedom. In Me nither
, root-like hair jets from a head tapping into the strength of universal womanhood.
Commenting further on male presumptions, Bitches Brew presents a young man absently-mindedly sorting CDs into a collection plate. He evokes popular music where bitches and hoes are constant sexualized refrains. Frequently, popular songs combine the commodification of women, male bragging about prowess, and boasts about money into one dismal display of power. In Bitches brew, the young man stands at the junction of the secular (read as popular music) and the sacred (read church collection plate) where the greed overrides all other values. Geter suggests that somewhere in the cultural fabric, wholesome self-visualization has been lost or distorted so profoundly that the whole community is at risk of descent into crass vulgarity.
Until I was taught, from the Dark Angels series, ponders this issue. Here a boy—a black Icarus—sits sprawled in an environment that is morally corrosive. Temptations hide in the background where phrases such as thug life, gun shy and …e real kool, alternate with we sing sin, we thin gin, we jazz tune, we die soon. Mixed in with such messages are sketchy images of a man behind bars and another with a gun in his waistband. False values, not flight too close to the sun, will bring this Icarus—this angel—down. Yet beyond the hazards of his social environment, the boy faces a larger danger, one that is systemic to the racialized society that is his birthright. That danger is signaled by the sentence behind him: “Justice must be blind. She never saw what was happening to me” A different twist on the familiar description of justice as blind is implied. Justice’s blindness does not translate to fairness without regard to other factors, but rather unfairness caused by the invisibility of victims. Will this boy become a victim?
That question dominates the Black lives matter series in which police violence directed toward black men is center stage. Freedom depicts a life-sized black man facing us and wondering if he will get shafted again. Accompanying text observes, “After we go tooken, they gave us jobs. When we got freedomed, we got Jim Crowed. Once we got educated, we got integrated. A lots of us surrender and quickly got assimulated.” Somewhere in the backdrop, the question becomes: ‘when will I be loved.” A companion piece, Breathe deep, breathe long, breathe free, suggests the same refrain, but with added heartache because recent history makes it hard to hear breathe associated with the image of a black figure and not recall Eric Garner‘s death in New York as he sighed “I can’t breathe.” Still more poignant is the diptych Reprisal in which one encounters front and rear waist up images of a black man. Installed between the panels is a list of unarmed black men that were recently killed by lawmen. Hands Up, the left panel, portrays the man with arms outstretched resembling a cross. He conjures an image of the crucifixion death of the innocent Jesus at the hands of Roman authorities. The opposite panel displays the man from the rear with his lower back dissolving into a scene of a prisoner behind bars. Up against the wall, as it is called, holds open the possibility that he might be shot in the back. Some have been. In the upper corners half hidden beneath torn folds, a face screams on one side while on the other a face just looks out cautiously. The single line of text provided for Reprisal is both cynical and cryptic. It reads: “I gots me some integration, but integration never got me.”

IV
Though not political, Geter comments critically on the myriad ways that racism has distorted black lives. Stinging observations are directed inter-group as well as intra-group. As strongly as he indicts white American society for its abuse of blacks since emancipation, he equally condemns intra-racial disparagement and negativity. His critical viewpoints and the ways in which he frames them reach back to forebears such as Sojourner Truth (“Ain’t I a woman Series&rdquoWinking and Paul Laurence Dunbar, both known for their piquant observations couched in colorful black vernacular speech. Using compositions that indisputably speak of black realities from black perspectives, Geter pioneers a fresh visual vocabulary for reckoning with America’s intractable problems of racial justice, social acceptance, and collective healing.

EBG