- - Thursday, June 9, 2016

A young, blindfolded, brunet debutante, dressed as if ready for her coming-out party, stretches her arm out to her side, as if trying to find her way. Her body has been placed in a Wonder Wheel, an inflatable water toy that looks remotely like a hamster wheel. The two elements consume the upper half of the paper they are painted on, while in the lower right of the composition is a young African-American girl holding up a sign that says “we shall overcome.”

While the white woman is blindfolded, caged, cautious of her steps, and possibly stuck, given the dominant scale of the white girl over the subordinate black girl, it’s impossible to walk away from the image without reflecting on white privilege.

The work, “Wonder Wheel,” is among a number of paintings executed by Dawn Black since 2012, on view at the Curator’s Office in Northeast through July 15.

“The things composited together makes me think of gender and how we’re still working through the society that we live in. Specifically, being a woman, feeling your way around and not really getting anywhere,” declares Ms. Black. It’s an issue that is as applicable to equal pay as it is to how courts handle issues of sexual assault and rape on college campuses.

Trained as an oil painter at the University of Iowa, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Ms. Black transitioned to watercolor after several moves between the coasts. It wasn’t an unfamiliar medium: She was a student of Michael Crespo, author of several books on watercolor technique. The works featured in the gallery were executed principally in watercolor, gouache and ink, and each is tightly rendered — to the point where they appear as near-facsimiles of her photographic sources, clipped from contemporary magazines and pulled from a variety of websites — both contemporary and historic.

There is a deliberate placement of elements throughout each composition that provokes an allegorical element. For instance, the overall design and placement of flowers in “Fount of Florid Reluctance,” the 100-inch-long painting that is broken into three distinct sections. On the left, a woman on a horse, draped in a floral suit, wields a sword. She is accompanied by a boy who seems to be selling floral kerchiefs, and an elderly woman who throws flowers into the middle part of the composition. The middle of the painting advances the narrative, featuring a man in a mask holding the once-sword-wielding woman. Her body is limp, and the pair are shielded by an umbrella held by a boy dressed in a white clown costume. On the right panel, the story concludes ambiguously with a figure seated backward on a horse, dressed in a bouquet of flowers.

“I start by finding specific images — and I have this big wall on my studio,” Ms. Black said of her process. “Sometimes they stay there for years until I see something else that sparks an association that will hopefully pique [the viewer] to think about how those things relate.”

Characters in “Fount of Florid Reluctance” are pulled from numerous sources: The boy selling kerchiefs is from Bangladesh; the woman throwing flowers is Eastern European. The man’s mask is a reference to the totem poles of the Tlingit Nation in the Northwestern U.S. and Canada.

This is where Ms. Black’s selection of source material, and their integration, allows for open reads.

“There’s an idea of a heroic narrative in the piece,” Ms. Black points out.

She recalls being inspired by “The Rape of the Sabine,” an ancient Roman story that was portrayed by artists from the late Renaissance into the 19th century. However, in Ms. Black’s case, not every figure she inserted into the composition necessarily supported the sense of heroism.

“Sometimes they’re put in purely for formal reasons, like the guy on the horse, to the right, covered in flowers,” whose presence creates a thematic symmetry with repeated elements of horses and flowers. However, it also disrupts the building tension of the female figure on the left who was captured in the middle. The allegory becomes ambiguous, and the narrative becomes awkward.

Her ambiguous approach allows for an opening for humor that ranges from the peculiar to the bawdy. For instance, one set of 18 drawings, from a series called “Conceal Project: Aesthetics,” features various crowned winners of beauty pageants. There’s Miss Klingon Universe, Miss Penitenciaria (Brazil), Miss Redneck Alabama. All possess the standard sash. Some hold bouquets. Some wave.

“I was primarily interested to see how different groups and societies deem what is beautiful,” Ms. Black noted.

As Miss Klingon Universe might suggest, some of the portraits in the series veer from the traditional. There’s a beauty pageant for drag queens (Miss’d America). Saudi Arabia hosts a beauty pageant of sorts: Miss Beautiful Morals, which considers something other than the looks of the recipient, which is evident since only the eyes are visible through the winner’s niqab.

Ms. Black also saw how some societies’ concept of beauty might also translate into something good — as might be especially the case for victims of landmines in Angola (Miss Landmine), where such a pageant might minimize the stigma of losing a limb.

While each of these aesthetic portraits alone is only 5 x 7, the work is the sum of individual pieces, and has to be viewed as a whole in order to appreciate the richness and complexity of the topic. No matter how mainstream or seemingly ridiculous, there is still an interest toward superlative exceptionalism. There is also an inherent vulnerability, too — not from losing the contest, but from the need to have it at all.

Dawn Black at the Curator’s Office, 703 Edgewood Street, NE, Washington, DC, runs through July 15. The gallery is open Saturdays from 12 to 6 p.m., and by appointment.

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