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Rico Gatson: Icons

Currently on show at The Studio Museum in Harlem, through August 27, 2017 In his latest solo show “Icons,” Rico Gatson explores the long lasting influence of 1960’s and 70’s Black artists, musicians, politicians, and activists on Black cultural and political consciousness. Each image in the collection contains a photographic portrait found and repurposed by the artist. Depicted are many big figures – among them Thelonious Monk, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane – however, the portraits sit small within the frame. What makes them appear larger than life are Gatson’s carefully drawn streaks of color. Bold lines of red, yellow, green, and black emanate from the figures evoking impressions of Pan-Africanism, placing each of them squarely in a political context. As a deep appreciator of many of the artists and musicians in the show I was curious as to how this series would contextualize them. I was left with a feeling of awe at the lasting impact of each figure. While Gatson uses stark application of color, he manages to simultaneously subvert minimalism through communicating a broader sociological concept. Traditionally, minimalism has often shied away from narrative, literal representation, and exposition, but Gatson incorporates these very techniques without undermining the form. The oldest work in the exhibition, “Nina,”, features Nina Simone kneeling with her hands intertwined towards the bottom center of the frame as vivid bands of color emanate from her afro. In the “The Black Panthers,” the figures seem to be moving in and out of the frame, towards the future. They stand together unapologetically as the intricate lines create almost a forcefield around them. Curator Hallie Ringle’s placement of the collages in the upstairs gallery space gives some works the effect of mirroring one another – perhaps to display that the individuals echo one another in political sentiment. The series of lines, metaphors for the reach of what each of these icons said, did, and created in their lifetimes, shoot out towards infinity, as if to say “Individuals may die, but ideas and influence cannot.”

Gatson told Creators, the art and culture publication of Vice, “I was inspired by the legacy of the figures depicted. In certain instances; it’s their social or political activism and in others it’s the beauty imbued in their lives and work.” And for many it was both. The portrait “Cassius”depicts Cassius Clay, or better known as Muhammad Ali, arms outstretched as if in victory, color shooting from his hands. Those hands which were famous for fighting in the boxing ring, also fought for the civil rights of Black Americans.

While minimalism was celebrated and popular in the 60s and 70s, many of figures featured in “Icons” were thought of as radical and controversial. Here, they are instead celebrated, revered and prideful. The works on paper created from 2007 to 2017 are part of an ongoing series, which Gatson says he will continue. For now the series is on display at the Studio Museum in Harlem from April 20 to August 27th, 2017.

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