By Emma Trelles
Arts Writes for the Sun-Sentinel
With sorrow pouring from its center and a dark and steady gaze, Tearing Eye begins the trip into the exhibit "Purvis Young: Paintings From the Street." It's one of many wise curatorial choices made in this stunning, 30-year retrospective at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The show mounts paintings alongside artist-made books, watercolors and even a four-door Datsun, all touched by the brush of the prolific Purvis Young. As diverse as the media and cobbled canvases are, all convey the narratives culled from a man's life, a local culture, the rise of downtown Miami and the struggles and spirit of nearby Overtown.
Painted in 1974 over a slab of rough-surfaced Masonite, the somber eye bears witness to these worlds, along with everything else created by the self-taught painter, a visual griot documenting what he's seen and where he's lived for most of his 63 years. Young's canvases comprise found paper, junk wood, broke-down dressers and doors, and any other flat surface he can paint on. And paint he does, constantly, compulsively, with a purpose he envisions as the mission of a warrior or an angel, to tell his tales and make, as he puts it, a "peace in the world."
"It all comes from personal experience and his outlook on life," explains the museum's senior curator, Wendy Blazier. "Visually, it's raw and it's real, especially now, in contrast with so much contemporary work in the last 20 years that's more minimalist and conceptualist.
"Purvis lives in one of the poorest communities in the country. This work has a real physicality to it. So much of it is made from discards gathered from the street. It all has a story."
Here is Young's story, or at least a bit from the early chapters: Born in 1943 in Liberty City to a Bahamian mother who urged him to draw. Dropped out of high school at 16 and arrested two years later for breaking and entering. Incarcerated in Florida's Raiford State Prison. Served four years but began drawing again in jail.
Once released, he frequented the public library, where he learned about the budding mural movement of the late '60s, whole blocks and buildings painted by Latino and black artists eager to record their own histories in full-throttle color.
Soon afterward, using house paint and plywood, Young crafted his first public construct: hundreds of singular works nailed to the abandoned buildings that once framed Fourteenth Street in Overtown. Known as the Goodbread Alley project, after the fine-smelling johnny-cake and cornbread then made in bakeries and homes along the street, Young's paintings launched a lifetime of art made in protest, in passion, in the wide tide of his own invention.
Today his work fills the pages of several books devoted to self-taught artistry, as well as the walls of galleries and museums across the country and abroad. Those seeking a similar, figure-filled thrill for free need only visit Miami's Northside Metrorail station or the outer walls of the Culmer/Overtown Library.
Yet these are but facts, and to wholly understand them, to enter Young's life, one must view his work and learn its secret language. It's an alphabet drawn from Overtown's residents, its streets and the artist's wild, god-flecked vision.
"My eyes is like a camera, a picture camera, and it take the slow motion of life," Young says to the film crew who shot Purvis of Overtown, an hour-long documentary released this year that tracks the painter's evolution along with the fall of his neighborhood. "I don't want to go that fast ... the peoples, the buildings. These characters come alive, you know?"
Assembled by chronology, the works at the museum trace how Young amassed his cast over the course of years, one image at a time. Bloody Angel, Jesus and Soul Sister, all painted in the early to mid-'70s, mark Young's affinity for deifying what he deems good. The requisite golden nimbus continues to circle the heads of later subjects, such as Thelonious Monk, and the grand and bulbous heads of angels wedged between building-thick streets.
Young portrays his common man with brash, black figures and squiggled arms raised in supplication or joy. His untamed and often ghostly horses stand free from the burdens of poverty, and his pregnant women glow or are crushed by addiction. Some of the paintings photograph a city in the making, such as Arena (c. 1989) or the lusciously colored Metrorail (c. 1984), burnished by the corals of South Florida's western sky at dusk, and the shadow of the transit system rising before it.
Other works unveil Young's own biography. There are pieces gathered from the mid-'90s painted on thinner planks and framed with carpet instead of plywood, such as the crimson-fringed Sage: Top of the World and Mule with Bag O' Gold. Young has diabetes and currently awaits a kidney transplant. While he feels fitter since he started dialysis, he is still unable to shoulder the heavier materials he used in younger years, such as the slab of Dade County pine found in My Peoples in the Streets (c. 1988).
Likewise his inclusion of titan-sized insects in two paintings from the same era reflects the anxiety he felt when his studio was infested with termites. Once exterminated, the pests also disappeared from his canvases. And his recent switch to water-based media such as acrylics or markers came after a doctor warned him that paint fumes could damage his eyes.
"It's autobiographical. It's historical; it's about politics," notes curator Blazier. "It's the best kind of art."
A populist painter
With an artist as prolific as Young there's always the chance of throwing everything and anything into an exhibit; it seems any scrap of paper the artist has ever wiped his brush upon is secured for sale on eBay or at high-end vintage stores. The man is omnipresent, much to the chagrin of many dealers who loop exclusiveness with value.
But Young is a populist painter, a man of the people, and the museum and its curators understand this. They have smartly sidestepped a greedier form of display for a careful assemblage. Each work builds upon the next, and perhaps nowhere is this more striking than the floor-to-ceiling suite of paintings Blazier installed on one long wall of the gallery.
It is, in part, a paean to the now long-gone Goodbread Alley project, but it is also a shrine to, and by, Purvis Young, powerfully cluttered with his signature angels, singing in choirs, cornered by construction, gagged. Hundreds of his primitive, rhythmic figures crowd inner-city avenues, bestriding horses or burying the dead. Ships drift along horizons, trains and trucks ferry wares along stripped down streets. It is the living history of one man, and of many.
What: "Purvis Young: Paintings From the Street"
Where: Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton
When: Through Nov. 26; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Admission: $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $4 for students
Events: Purvis of Overtown screens at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Wolgin Auditorium (free with paid museum admission; tickets issued one hour prior on a first-come basis)
Contact: 561-392-2500 or bocamuseum.org
Emma Trelles can be reached at 954-356-4689 or firstname.lastname@example.org.