Art

Patricia Blanchet with two of her collection of striking, large-format photographic portraits depicting African men and women in vividly colorful surroundings. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Patricia Blanchet with two of her collection of striking, large-format photographic portraits depicting African men and women in vividly colorful surroundings. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Color, drama, and humanity at the Craven

By Brooks Robards - August 10, 2006

Two African-American artists and one British one, working in very different genres and media, are exhibiting their art at the Carol Craven Gallery in Vineyard Haven through August 11. The show makes the most of Ms. Craven's exciting new exhibition space on Breakdown Lane in Vineyard Haven, the large scale works displayed to full advantage in the airy, high-ceilinged front room.

The most dramatic work, by New York artist Patricia Blanchet, is a series of large-format color photographs. Called "Burkina Reflected," they consist of portraits of individuals from the small, land-locked West African nation of Burkina Faso. French-speaking, Burkina was once known as the Republic of Upper Volta.

Jo-Anne Bates with her brilliant and high-energy monotypes, which drew many admirers during the reception. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Jo-Anne Bates, a long-time summer resident from Pittsburgh, Pa., with her brilliant and high-energy monotypes, which drew many admirers during the reception.

Ms. Blanchet began the series in 2001, when she was traveling in Burkina to develop cultural programming for Fespaco, Africa's largest film festival, held biennially in Burkina.

"I photographed the quotidian, the quiet moments in between, often even the mundane, and looked to these for the possibilities of grace, beauty, and truth that characterize Burkina Faso today," she says.

Using natural light, Ms. Blanchet works with an old Rolleiflex, no tripod and no assistant, trying to minimize the space between herself and her subjects. The individuals portrayed come from villages, small cities, and widely ranging walks of life in Burkina. Ms. Blanchet's large, 44" by 44" format enhances the rich colors and textures in her photographs.

Background plays an important role in developing a sense of the individual's world. In some cases, the background is a mud brick wall; in others, a door or window of corrugated metal.

Clothing, background, and physiognomy come together in powerful ways. Many of the women wear clothing in highly saturated colors and vivid designs. Marc Voudri from Bobo-Dialasso matches their finery with his white pants, blue shirt, and red-striped suspenders.

Enjoying the festivities at the Carol Craven Gallery Sunday were CBS reporter Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes," noted journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault who has worked with CNN, NPR, and PBS, and photographer Patricia Blanchet whose images from Africa were a highlight of the exhibit. Ms. Blanchet is married to Mr. Bradley. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Enjoying the festivities at the Carol Craven Gallery Sunday were CBS reporter Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes," noted journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault who has worked with CNN, NPR, and PBS, and photographer Patricia Blanchet whose images from Africa were a highlight of the exhibit. Ms. Blanchet is married to Mr. Bradley.

Safiata Fofana from Tcheriba wears a particularly striking red and blue gown with a strongly patterned stole and headwrap that set off her handsome features. The dull brown of a wall and a piece of wood that provide the context for the portrait of Fande Tenen from Baunsi reinforce the lushness of the subject's skin and handsome lips. Like the "Earth's Elders" exhibit at Featherstone Center for the Arts, these portraits magnify the humanity and uniqueness of their subjects, much as the creators of the Xian warriors or of Roman colossus statuary did.

British-born artist David Remfry works in watercolor and graphite to make a series of long, narrow portraits of women, often as tall as five feet. Heads bowed and eyelids lowered, they convey a sense of erotic seductiveness. Color plays a far more minimal role than it does in Ms. Blanchet's work. In one case, a woman's red shoes provide the only color, in another only a bright crimson lipsticked mouth is a highlight.

Based in New York since 1995, Mr. Remfry has had more than 50 solo exhibits worldwide. The National Portrait Gallery commissioned him to paint a likeness of Sir John Gielgud, and he has done another of the actor for the personal collection of Queen Elizabeth. Mr. Remfry became a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts in 1989 and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2001.

David Remfry's paintings capture café society with attitude. Photo by Ralph Stewart
David Remfry's paintings capture café society with attitude.

In his large party depictions, like "Night Scene" and "Downtown Milonga," Mr. Remfry fills the frame with people dancing, singing and enjoying themselves. Filled with movement and life, these are his strongest works on display. As one guest at Sunday's reception observed, these large depictions of intricate nightlife would be smashing on the walls of a posh bar or restaurant.

Jo-Anne Bates, in her third exhibit at the Craven Gallery, makes abstract monotypes that convey the look of a controlled Jackson Pollack. In most of the work on exhibit, this Pittsburgh artist creates dense thickets of color in thin, curling lines like a magnificent, chaotic box of colored spaghetti.

"Beach with Green Seaweed" uses a soft, screen-like background under a burst of green, red, yellow and a touch of glitter. "Jazz and Blues in Paris" orchestrates a harmony of purples, blues, and greens.

In some cases, Ms. Bates has taken odd, jagged shapes of paper and worked her color magic on them. Music provides inspiration for many of her creations, including "Beethoven, Bach and Beach" or "Black Line Symphony."

Trained at Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Pittsburgh, Ms. Bates says of her work: "My intention is to create a feeling of spontaneous, rhythmic movement with line, some bold, others less so, across the entire surface." She teaches at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

The variety offered by the art by Ms. Blanchet, Mr. Remfry and Mr. Bates on display at the Craven Gallery makes for a satisfying and provocative experience.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to the Times.