In Ancient Greece, the agora was a central public space, meaning “gathering place” or “assembly.” The agora served as a political, commercial and social hub and was also where Socrates found himself in trouble because of his philosophical inquisitions.
In The Public Square, an exhibit on view at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 17, African American painter/collagist Cullen Washington, Jr. re-imagines the agora as a metaphor for non-hierarchical and open dialog and as a possible setting for the rebirth of hope and love. Relying on his recent artist’s residency in Athens, Greece, he explores the history and meaning of the classical agora and its possible modern reinvention as “the heart of the artistic, spiritual, and political life of a city.”
Evoking ancient architecture
The central space of the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery has been reconfigured to evoke the layout of an agora. Several of Washington’s monumental artworks surround a seating area, forming the heart of the exhibition.
More built than painted, the artist’s pieces use sheets of paper to define the outer perimeter, with layers of marks, tape, cut paper and other items forming a rough approximation of the architectural grid and the physical space of an imagined agora. Many of the features on the surface of the mediums are discreet placements of paint, tape, plastic, and paper attached to the substrate. The effect of painterly abstraction is achieved through a process, a bit more like writing, a selection of individual components added together to create meaning. Washington’s artworks lean on the color black for drama (Robert Motherwell springs to mind), using color sparingly as an indicator of compositional direction, or as a stand-in for humanity in the exhibit.
While the entire installation is compelling, a couple pieces are especially noteworthy. The squarish Agora 3 is exemplative of Washington’s methods; he maps out the central space with black striated blocks loosely referencing the columns of the buildings surrounding the lively agora, punctuated by red, yellow, and green. The mood of the piece is harmonious, an agora imagined as a venue for playful dialog. Agora 6 is larger, with the central agora depicted as very small, giving this artwork a unique presence. Washington’s restrained use of color in the piece is especially deft.
Smaller works by the artist, utilizing collagraph and other printing techniques, are in an adjoining gallery. During last summer’s residency, Washington took special note of the center of Athens; inspired by that place, these hybrid collages, and other urban detritus, create relief monoprints that imply a fossil record of a city’s substance.
The side gallery also includes a video of a visit to the intimate setting of Cullen Washington’s studio. Washington is a man who loves his work. In one especially telling comment about his distinctive process, he says, “I’ve learned this [visual] language, and I feel I’ve just started to write poetry.”
At the other end of the gallery, an impromptu video theater offers short clips of various public figures, including James Baldwin, John F. Kennedy, Maya Angelou, U.N Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Barack Obama, talking about human rights, racism, and future hope for equality. The videos have them all speaking simultaneously, mimicking the murmurous public speech of the agora. The videos, while certainly worth seeing, seemed somewhat forced in juxtaposition to the abstract and poetic work of the exhibit, like a public service announcement attached to a sonnet.
One wonders when African American artists will be free to make art without feeling the need to represent their ethnicity to the broader public. My guess is that we will reach this milestone when we learn to talk about racism honestly, throughout the year, not just during Black History Month, when this exhibit opened. Then Cullen Washington’s dream of the agora will be complete.
‘Cullen Washington, Jr.: The Public Square’
is on view through May 17.
The University of Michigan Museum of Art
A. Alfred Taubman Gallery I.
734-764-0395 | umma.umich.edu