Sunday, February 19, 2012

Location, Location, Location! Cityscapes of Harvey Gilliam and Kojo Kamau

The 2012 bicentennial of Columbus, Ohio is inspiring a panoply of art shows. Cityscapes Yesteryear, currently open at the King Arts Complex and co-sponsored by Art for Community Expression, is a particularly sweet example. It features the work of photographer Kojo Kamau (website), most from his student days when he was getting to know his camera and 35mm film. "Buildings don't move," he laughs, so he practiced on the city—which has in fact moved considerably since his 1960 explorations.

Tall One, 24 x 20," 1960. Kojo Kamau. 
At the same time, his friend Harvey Gilliam was exploring his favorite places in watercolors. Having worked in oils, he had fallen in love with a medium that was ascending—like photography—to claim its own status among the primary visual arts.
Columbus Skyline, ca. 28 x 21," 1970. Harvey Gilliam.
Cityscapes Yesteryear gives the visitor windows onto the city disappeared, altered, and constant. These three views of a classic Columbus vista, of the Scioto River edge of downtown, with the landmark LeVeque Tower and various State office buildings celebrate architectural beauty, prosperity, and, taken together, continuity. Kamau and Gilliam have agreed with many others that this is the definitive view of their city, even with its changes across the years.
Urban Landscape #115, 24 x 20, 2006. Kojo Kamau.

I went into this show asking myself, "If I were not from Columbus, would I be interested in these works? Is their particular location their major appeal? Is work like this only for people who recognize the scenes?"

A point of reference for this question is a painting in the show from Kamau's collection, a Columbus scene by Roman Johnson, a Columbus native of national reputation. The work is Oak Street, from 1980. While outside information tells us that it's Columbus, the scene could be in just about any city. The interest of the work is not its specific location, but the artist's excellence in execution of materials and success in suggesting a story. It's a defined urban landscape for us to imagine our ways into.

I found that some of the work in this show operates at this level too, Gilliam's Central Market (20 x 27," ca. 1960), for instance. A resident of our city will recognize the landmarks in the background and know that the market is a thing of the past. For others, it's a charming scene from a collective past—from a European country, even—that it's easy to enter and enjoy visiting. As for being urban? Urban is defined in a must softer way than we know it today, wherever this city is located.

Kamau's Strolling on the Avenue (1997) is similarly an open image, a scene that could be from any tough neighborhood in an American city. The composition is powerful in line, color, and mass, and the viewer can find any number of stories—of hope, despair, damage or confidence—waiting to be told here. Made in Columbus, universally accessible.

But much of Cityscapes Yesteryear indulges the lover of Columbus by encouraging personal stories of exactly the kind I enjoyed when I met Gilliam and Kamau at the gallery. Gilliam remembers Helen Carter's Music School  fondly as the place his wife took music lessons. The house is not there any more, but he can locate its former site for me by tracing certain East Side intersections  no longer known for their leafy settings. 

Neither Gilliam nor Kamau ever considered his work to be anything for the historical record. Gilliam painted for enjoyment, selecting his scenes for personal reasons: He liked the look of the buildings, or had ties to them; one subject was the school where he waited in the car during his daughter's weekly lesson. Below, Unity Neighborhood Scene (16.5 x 35"), pictures his own neighborhood at 5th Street and 9th Avenue during the '70s, recollecting who lived where and the community they had. "There's a story behind every painting," he asserts. Clearly those stories lead him to his subjects.

Gilliam enjoyed having people look over his shoulder as he worked. He was happy to turn their interest to profit. A goodly portion of his work was done on commission from friends, or from others who met him while he painted, then asked if he would do paintings of their homes. He learned from another artist the value of putting together a portfolio to display at the annual home show, from which he also drew clients. Often, though, Gilliam made two paintings of a commissioned subject, keeping one for himself out of personal interest.

Gilliam is 91 years old now and Cityscapes Yesteryear is his first substantial show, the brainchild of Kamau, who saw the unique opportunity that Bicentennial Columbus and Black History Month offered. Gilliam, while prolific—his house is said to be overflowing with work—has not undertaken the artistic business of professional documentation or competing to be in art shows. Nevertheless, he sets very high standards for his work, a sort often overlooked by the local watercolor society painter. He is adamant about editing as he composes, careful to put in details that count but to eliminate such "reality" as detracts from the best composition. "I'm not concerned with documentation, with what's visible," he insists. I want to convince the viewer that it's here and now."

The Columbus that Gilliam represented forty or fifty years ago is in fact very similar to the city of today. In his paintings of neighborhoods of detached houses with lawns, and of churches, he depicts a city that builds out instead of up, whose neighborhoods are filled with houses and trees rather than with high-density construction, and where the density of houses of worship is very high. 

 Tim Treadwell House (left), Mt. Vernon Avenue AME (middle), and Church of the Living God (bottom), are examples of scenes from the pastoral city. The architecture may be faux-Tudor, institutional Deco, or a renovated cottage in a historic neighborhood, 
 but it's a calm, comfortable, and neighborly city, not a harsh, dirty, or worn place.

When Gilliam explains his other pictures, he locates the buildings directionally—for example, on the northwest corner of the intersection, or on the south side of the street—and nearly always names the unseen homes or businesses in front of which he worked.

His cityscapes give us located scenes, the very places he and others have occupied and loved over years of living in Columbus, Ohio. They can be found by map or compass. They are places filled with stories for generations of residents, their friends, and passersby. But they are also tiles in a mosaic that creates the character and the mythology of the city: The safe, easy-going community that is almost not a city at all. In fact, I like most of all Down My Alley (ca.1970), still a typical Columbus scene, as it remains a scene typical in small-town Ohio. 

Kojo Kamau's Columbus tends to be as particular as Gilliam's, but over his career he has taken his camera downtown. Gilliam paints the personal scene, the world in which individuals dominate. Even though he rarely paints people into his picture, it's easy to put ourselves into the personal, warm spaces. Kamau's photos are of the busy city, where a person can  get lost in the crowd or enjoy a faster pace.

Spicer's Furniture (24 x 20," 1960), above, is the emblem of "photographic detail," delivering every telephone and light pole, wire, parking meter, and every letter on every sign—all that Gilliam would edit out for the sake of a preferred narrative reality. Would one recognize this as an avenue in Columbus in particular? The people who have been there surely will. The abundant, distinct detail suggests that the stories may be different from those that attach to the houses with lawns.

Center of Town from 1960 is another photo that will undoubtedly fill Columbus natives with nostalgia or excitement, chock full as it is with the buildings that remain, have been replaced or altered. The huge signs that name businesses often become landmarks in themselves even when their namesakes have disappeared; Gam (Gambrinus Beer) and Roy's Watches are undoubtedly redolent of place and period, with thousands of personal memories attached. It's a picture that could be of another city, but lacking any outstanding landmark, it's a scene that draws its life from what viewers bring and add to it: their own sense of place derived from visual memory.

 It's interesting that Kamau used these signs in a photomontage, Night Lights, that well illustrates the difference between local cityscape and work about The City, generalized as a hard, fast, exciting place. Center of Town, above is clearly Our Town. Who would delve into the details of this photograph of a wide, unbustling city street lined by common enough architecture? Of course plenty of people would, and they are from Columbus, fascinated by the image's opportunity to attach their personal memories, city history, stories they've heard, and impressions to validate or disprove. Night Lights isn't history, but fantasy—television or movies, or global cities built up and not spread across seemingly endless acreage. 

But a dream city is our city as much as the green-grass genteel city and the crowded Afro-American neighborhoods and the remembered markets long gone. It's clear that there are many images in this show that would probably not mean much to a person from Burbank or Boston. Sometimes the formal aspects of a work aren't enough to make the subject matter broadly interesting. But everything here—including the work with universal appeal—was made with an eye focused exclusively on home. It reflects the complexity of the idea of a city, but even more, how a city, constructed and landscaped, is ultimately the cloudy locus for millions of individual moments, memories, and stories.

Kojo Kamau and Harvey Gilliam, 2012

With thanks to Julie Fultz for her assistance with the images of Harvey Gilliam's work.

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