Reading Eagle 1/3/10 “Moving Works of Purvis Young Display Passion and Urgency”

Moving works of Purvis Young display passion and urgency

By Ron Schira
Reading Eagle correspondent
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Courtesy of Ron Schira

One of the characteristics of the Outsider art movement is a notion that an untrained artist will make art only for himself, to satisfy an urge that expunges whatever demon possesses him or glorifies whatever beauty astonishes him. What is created is for personal release and self-gratification, not aimed at the art market for sales or prestige.

These qualities can be attributed to many artists, but few have the notoriety and power of Purvis Young, a black artist living in a depressed area of Miami called Overtown. His artworks have become famous for their stark interpretations of the black experience within this impoverished area. He has been lauded by many with shows across the nation, artworks in over 50 museums and features on television shows. In 2006, a documentary of his work and life titled “Purvis of Overtown” was produced by photographer David Raccuglia and filmmaker Shaun Conrad.

Adopting the same title for a comprehensive exhibit of Young’s work, the Outsider Folk Art Gallery will have a number of his paintings on view through Feb. 27 on the fifth floor of the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts. Gallery director George Viener has been gathering the artist’s work for some time and is now ready to display his holdings, which include some of Young’s most powerful work.

Young, 67 and suffering from diabetes, was arrested at 18 and spent four years behind bars for breaking and entering. During that time he learned to paint. Upon his release, angered by injustices of the Vietnam war and corporate greed, he took on the task of painting an entire stretch of abandoned buildings in the Goodbread Alley section of Miami with protests of war, racial inequality and poverty.

This attracted a great deal of attention from collectors and critics alike, who raised him to a new artistic status and referred to him as Miami’s Picasso, but this attention has not affected the way he paints or sees the world. He still objects to the wrongs and injustices with the same fervor and continues to paint what he sees.

“I see the have and the have-nots,” he said in the documentary. “But I keep my mouth shut and paint.”

The works in the exhibit are coarse and appear roughshod, as if trampled on and beaten by the ravages of a hard life. His images of youths on the street and buildings upon buildings speak of an almost contained existence of concrete, brick and weathered wood. His materials consist of that same wood, found and used to convey the feeling of the streets, his frames constructed similarly, splintered into shards, covered with house paint and nailed together.

Yet always the paintings appear hopeful and positive, such as a large piece titled “Reaching Up for a Better Life,” in which a figure stands like a giant and raises his arms through a myriad of structures, figures and symbols in order to find the sky. Another piece titled “Jazz Trio” offers a view of three musicians plying their craft and making a joyful noise. Other images show horses in black and in white, at times dancing or sparring, still others display black-capped youths surrounded by broken chains, symbols and metaphors of a subjective or combative life.

Each of these pieces is painted with passion and urgency, commenting on the plight of the ghetto and the people who live there. Young is a true American original and one of the best around. This exhibit is a moving experience and a definite must- see.

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