Sunday, September 8, 2019

Epaul Julien & Matthew Rosenbeck at Stella Jones

Black history, even local black history, is by now such a well trod path for African American artists that we may wonder what new light can be shed on historic figures ranging from Marie Laveau to Angela Davis or Robert Johnson. A visit to this "Ain't I America" expo of mixed media work by Epaul Julien and Matthew Rosenbeck at Stella Jones suggests the short answer to that question is: quite a lot. This show shines as a vibrant installation in which the two artists works exist in a colorful dialog about the meaning of being black in America as seen in the lives of iconic figures who helped define their times. 
Epaul Julien takes a macro approach in many of his mixed media collages featuring a melange of images. “A Woman's Place,” spotlights black female activism with views of figures like Angela Davis on a wanted poster, but others are more specific, even hagiographic, for instance, an ornate wooden wall altar framing a painting of Marie Laveau, right. Julien's flair for wood shines in “Before Gentrification,” top, a sculpture of a ramshackle home atop a spindly pedestal. Its facade is a portrait of a youth in dreads, and its roof is crowned by a battered trumpet. Here Julien's ever-experimental way of putting a face and a form on abstract issues imbues them with a soulful, emotional aura.
Matthew Rosenbeck's mixed media portraits portray familiar figures in graphically arresting new contexts. “Malcolm X” bristles with the tensions of the times he helped define, but blues icon “Robert Johnson” (pictured) is more mysterious. Here the red tinged fruit in the background evokes the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit” in which lynched bodies hang from trees. Robert Johnson's father barely escaped that fate when a lynch mob forced his family to flee after a dispute with a white land owner. Despite dying young, Johnson became one of the most influential figures in modern music yet, like so many of the individuals depicted here, his whole life was a series of close calls. ~Bookhardt / Ain’t I America: New Work by Epaul Julien and Matthew Rosenbeck, Through Sept. 27th, Stella Jones Gallery, 201 St. Charles Ave., Suite 132, 568-9050.