Mau-Mauing the Art Collectors

Success may be one of the greatest puzzles for a contemporary black artist, because no matter how good the work, the artist never seems to be viewed separately from his or her race. As Houston painter David McGee strolls around the downstairs gallery of the Contemporary Art Museum, where his giant figurative oil paintings have been given the full museum treatment (including purchase for the personal collections of four museum employees), he gestures at the demonic, groveling and slightly horror-stricken face of one of his subjects. "That's what happens to you when you make a deal with the devil," says McGee dramatically. "I give the people a little something extra with the art. I'm traded on my blackness. It's a coin."

In the history of African-American artmaking, trends have run the gamut from a concerted exploration of black themes and a black aesthetic, to an eschewing of such concerns in hopes of garnering greater mainstream respect, and back again. McGee's own work began with renderings of black musicians, then moved to tropical landscapes and Jasper Johnsian abstraction, and most recently evolved to technically ambitious paintings that dwell on overtly racial concerns. Along the way, McGee learned that for artists of his generation, receiving colorblind judgment is less of a possibility than ever -- that he is not an artist, but a black artist, and that, like it or not, this fact will both work to his advantage and contribute to his isolation. That is what McGee regards as his deal with the devil.

This exhibit, "Black Comedies and Night Music," shows that preoccupation with what it means to be a black artist. In American Painter, a tribal African sculpture wields a paintbrush. In other works, a monkey stands in for the artist himself. On some levels, this mockery of people's expectations is called for. But McGee also does his fair share of meeting those expectations in earnest. He uses African masks and face paint on his subjects; he titles his work with entries from a dictionary of African-American slang. Certainly, these subjects are McGee's by right -- but his personal relationship to them is not always clear, and sometimes their use seems too easy. In Mau Mau, defined in the wall text as "a revolutionary-minded American young black person during the sixties who identified with the Mau Mau fighters of Kenya," one might expect the history lesson to shed some light on today. Instead, an African warrior has simply been taken out of time, wearing a defensive posture and a grass skirt, with nothing contemporary about him.

While McGee's subject matter sometimes seems like traditional ethnography, the paintings themselves are traditional in another way. Though their subjects are often black, they are patterned after European masterpieces by Picasso, Velazquez and van Gogh. While switching out the race and gender of models in masterpieces has been done before -- most relevantly, perhaps, by African-American artist Robert Colescott -- it's previously been done with glee and humor. Though laid over with rebellious accessories, McGee's appropriations are reverential, even dutiful. As a painter, McGee has his lazy moments -- the same subject might feature both a meticulously rendered countenance and a rather loosely impressionistic skirt -- yet he generally succeeds at creating seductive, beautiful, European-style paintings. With few exceptions, his figures are lavishly executed, given either a classic landscape background or, like inhabitants of the dark side of the moon, a haunted black wash. The bigger the canvases, the more convincingly heroic they become, and the closer McGee comes to his romantic notions of who and what an artist is supposed to be.

There is a tension in this work between this romantic, literary notion (McGee has studied the life of Picasso, and he once named a series of paintings after a poem by T.S. Eliot) and the critique of such a notion that a black artist is, in McGee's mind, supposed to provide. On one approximately eight-foot-square canvas, McGee has rendered a fair, and fairly ballsy, copy of Picasso's famous foray into African imagery, the Desmoiselles d'Avignon. In the center, he has painted the monkey, howling and holding a paintbrush of his own, like a kid who has wandered into the wrong romper room. The ostensible point, it would seem, is to topple one of the looming images of the Western canon. Only McGee seems to have gotten all crossways with his target. His energy and investment have gone into appropriating the image, not toppling it. It is clear that McGee loves Picasso. To be sure, he has titled his effort Pimps and Whores, as if to clue us in to what's really going on in modern art. But with the monkey looking more like a naughty child than a pimp, and the desmoiselles long absolved of their crimes, this stab at streetwise candor is unconvincing.

McGee paints as if he has something to prove, not something to topple. But in his exploration of African motifs, there is much that seems labored and obligatory, as if authenticity were not required in order to fulfill McGee's deal with the devil. In Corporate Girl/Side B, a woman dressed in the full skirts of a Velazquez-era princess stands at the ready, painted African designs masking her face. She wears boxing gloves. Her male counterparts -- the African warrior in Mau Mau and a youth with a painted face and headdress in Snake Baby (actually a self-portrait of McGee) -- also stand stiff and centered in their frames. All three seem as if their attire is the result not of their ancestry, but of an invitation requesting African dress.

But there are other paintings in which stiffness is not the rule. Lush Life, a self-portrait modeled on the famous painting Death of Marat, shows McGee in a stage-set-like bathtub in a darkened room. Clutching a piece of paper that reads "Lush Life" in one hand, and with a trumpet perched on the end of the covered tub, McGee lolls back, eyes closed. Crouched in front of the bathtub is the monkey, who now seems frightened and bewildered, a vessel for the shadowy mood. There are some silly elements -- two poorly painted balloons bearing the name of the painting float above the tub -- but they are anchored by the painting's dark ambiance. In Portrait of Picasso/Side A, McGee paints a bewitching woman who is modern not just in her braided hairstyle and choker necklace but in her frank, slightly defensive expression. The woman is half-naked, and as the viewer's eye travels down to the classical drapery around her waist, it encounters the screaming monkey, this time dressed in black tie.

Once again, the monkey represents divided feelings about the artist. From the title, we know it refers to Picasso; from the rest of the exhibit, we know that the trickster monkey refers to McGee himself (the catalog essay helpfully points out that Picasso was a womanizer; McGee, a ladies' man). And though the monkey's presence in the picture is complicating, it's not complex -- it simply counteracts the woman's dignity, both with its bestial howl and by asserting the male creator of the image. But for all that, the woman is still the more powerful presence, calling into question whether the monkey is even needed in the frame. In the space between what the artist wants to do (grandiose painting) and what the artist feels is legitimate (painting with built-in critique), the monkey pops up.

McGee may be absolutely correct in his wariness of European-style painting -- but nevertheless his paintings work best when they are less concerned with art-historical critique and more concerned with what he sees about him. For one thing, McGee has a great eye for the grotesque. Bad teeth are his specialty. In The First White Man I Ever Saw, McGee captures the strain of cruelty on a face just so, painting a dyspeptic smirker in a Napoleonic pose -- with the wrinkle of his trousers imparting a subtly unmasculine shape to his pelvis.

David McGee is often compared to another black Texas artist, Michael Ray Charles, who paints stereotypical images of African-Americans such as Sambos and Aunt Jemimas. But there is little here to support such a comparison. Though in the double row of works on paper that are interspersed between the paintings, McGee occasionally visits such imagery, it is far from predominant. Each artist has his particular brand of nostalgia: Charles's is graphic, and taken from old-time advertisements, and McGee's is literary and romantic. His works on paper, titled collectively "From Juba to Jive," after a slang dictionary, each feature one definition, including "greyhounding" (dating a white person) and "cleo-may" (a conjuring love potion used by women). Each is accompanied by a sometimes only tangentially related image of a person or a tribal mask, thus conflating black portraits with black artifacts, but also emphasizing the many roles suggested by the words -- freak (a jazz musician who can hit the high notes), jiggaboo, grape-cat (a male who drinks a great deal of wine).

By playing the role of the black artist, McGee himself is wearing one of these masks. And McGee's deal with the devil turns out to be this: By asking so many earnest questions about what it means to be a black artist, he can sidestep the larger question of what it means to be an artist in general. What would Snake Baby be like, I wonder, if he removed the paint from his face?

"David McGee: Black Comedies and Night Music" is on view through March 1 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, 284-8250.

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Shaila Dewan