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zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

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alexis vaillant
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JEFFREY HARGRAVE; THE WAY THE HEART WORKS: TRICIA COLLINS CONTEMPORARY ART - NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Jeffrey Hargrave, untitled(lady), acrylic on Masonite

 

Jeffrey Hargrave had his first one-person exhibition in New York City in January '98 at Tricia Collins Contemporary Art. Since then he has participated in several group shows at the gallery; most recently in the show entitled "Convivial." Hargrave's work, while extremely personal, also manages to deal with critical historical issues that are easily sidelined in current society. The artist draws on images that he has been surrounded with since he was a child, but maneuvers them into positions that make them less about day-to-day prejudice and racism and more about celebrating who he is and his own place in American society.

In Hargrave's January show, "Polka Dot: A Locus of Meaning," the artist exhibited a wide range of works from paintings and drawings to small, stuffed dolls that are hand-made out of muslin. Because the subject matter portrayed in the art confronts stereotypes held in common culture about black Americans, it is easy to view them as challenges to the public psyche. Hargrave's drawings, inspired by rural black minstrel culture, almost dare the viewer to acknowledge them. Because the drawings are rendered with a spirit that is akin to love and honesty, they were able to transcend the subject of American racism and impose the much stronger impression of pride. The drawings were installed in a grid format and had titles such as jigaboo, porch monkey, and mamie. A viewer might get the impression that they are examining potentially subversive comic strip frames from the earlier part of this century (or maybe even a history-quilt that has been handed down through the ages). Putting these images into this kind of pattern enables one to see this cast of taboo characters, forcing us to admit the familiarity of these names and images. Hargrave uses these characters to reminds us that we all know what they mean, yet he reclaims them for himself, thereby making them figures to be celebrated, rather than ridiculed.

The dolls exhibited contained overtones of the African experience in the Americas, giving a nod toward the religion of Voodoo (although they have less to do with the syncretic religion than one might initially think). Hargrave embraces another form of expression that our society has managed to put in a marginal position and made it into something that can reflect human personality. We are reminded that these dolls are not supposed to be scary and frightening, but are simply dolls, despite their non-Western European appearance. Some of the dolls are painted to look like anatomical diagrams, showing the human skeletal and pulmonary systems, such as the way the heart works. Despite the thought that they seem to attempt to reflect the similarities that lie within all peoples, they also seem to stress the superficial differences that keep us alienated from one another. Since this initial showing of the dolls, Hargrave has created a number of other figures that show caricatures of both friends and imagined characters. Perhaps this usage of the ancient form of the figurine to embody characters and emotive statues is what gives the viewer of these dolls the sense that one is examining a historical relic.

Creating works that express ideas and images that seem to have come from within the depths of antiquity becomes almost a theme in much of Hargrave's art. Many times Hargrave's paintings are representations of real people from both the distant past and the present. In the last few months Hargrave has begun to paint intriguing compositions consisting of realistic portraits drawn from photographs that he combines with abstract elements of line and color. One of Hargrave's paintings, untitled (lady), depicts a black nurse holding a white infant in her arms. They are figures taken from a nineteenth century photograph, translated by Hargrave on canvas in brilliant hues of blue and yellow. While the nurse is portrayed in these vibrant colors, the child's image was not translated from the original print of black and white. Although this representation of the two characters may be symbolic of their relationship on a personal level, regarding their status as child and servant, it is also a discourse on society on a grander scale. The interpretation of these aspects leans toward the black woman's endurance in a time of adversity as a human who, is able to cultivate so much strength that she has enough to share with another, someone like this baby; who despite holding a privileged position in society, depends on an enslaved woman in order to live. The work is particularly haunting, not just because of the grave demeanor of the nurse, but there is also something in the obvious connection of love between the two figures, even though the nurse was still a slave when the photograph was taken. This feeling of love, in spite of difficult circumstances that may exist, is what seems to be Hargrave's main concern, and he chose to express this by using this particular woman and child as a vehicle for this emotion.

Although on the surface it may seem that Hargrave is trying to approach topics that many people are not willingly or comfortably discussing, despite the fact that it is an embedded facet in the way Americans have historically related to each other, there is still something else that presents itself on a more subconscious level. Hargrave's characters appear to be chosen not for their provocative or ironic value so much as for their powers of acceptance and resolution. Acceptance because he takes powerful images and uses their strength for his own benefit, and resolution for the love he finds within them as he creates an endearing work of art.

 

Layla Lozano

New York, New York

1998 <