Maurice Bonds was an influential teacher of art and art history who also chaired the fine art and art history departments during 32 years’ tenure at Virginia Commonwealth University. He was also a gifted artist, and this sprawling retrospective — lovingly assembled by artist Richard Kevorkian — collects six decades of his work, providing a veritable walking tour of 20th-century art. A committed modernist, Bonds was a painter of skill and intellect if not great originality, a restless investigator of modern idioms whose strongest work is imbued with dazzling color and a sardonic sense of humor.
Because he rarely dated or titled his work, the exhibit is arranged into great chronological chunks of time. Early work is rooted in caricature, American social realism and prewar European modernism. A highlight is a comical, full-body portrait of a fey-looking boxer, who shows off his lean physique — clad in scandalously skimpy athletic shorts and snappy boots — while a naked man showers behind him. This homoerotic snapshot of male vanity spoofs America’s rigid gender roles and is also a wickedly funny sendup of the gritty machismo of George Bellows’ boxing he-men.
After World War II, Bonds tried his hand at nearly every cutting-edge figurative strategy of the day, from hard-edged abstraction to Art brut “primitivism.” Academic attempts at abstract expressionism are unconvincing, and a Beckmann pastiche with a crowned sea deity and an enigmatic young boy playing a violin can’t transcend its source material. But a small set of works — striking monochromes in sand-mixed paint — are interesting variations on the childlike doodle-paintings of Miro and Dubuffet.
Bonds’ late works — woozily distorted faces and figures painted in a brash, acidic post-pop palette — are his most distinctive. In one, a middle-aged man with a pot belly holds a dainty dragonfly by its wings in a big, cartoony hand. Its garish design and intentional awkwardness evoke late Guston, and its blues and yellows suggest the cake-frosting palette swipes of Thiebaud. But the daffy, willfully peculiar image jibes perfectly with the squiggly brushwork and wild palette, resulting in a freer, funkier style that is more compelling than his many explorations of the styles of others.
“Maurice Bonds: A Retrospective” is a lively tribute to an artist who excelled in minor gems. His considerable intellect and respect for contemporary innovations give his work an air of scientific investigation — leafing through the lexicon of modern art and trying out its tropes, less interested in making a name for himself than in attempting each experiment in the book.
“Portrait of America” is a selection of photographs by Marsha Burns of Americans who dwell on the margins of society. Shot before a bare wall and printed from Polaroid negatives, these black-and-white portraits capture the personalities of what Burns describes in the exhibit notes as “self-defined” individuals who “can’t or don’t want to fit in.” Her America is a racially mixed, mostly working-class community of sexual diversity and sometimes indeterminate gender. Her subjects proudly wear costumes or street clothes that register as costumes. Many of them seem to revel in their “outsider” status.
In “Dana, New York City” (1992), a hunky, shirtless, nonwhite male holds an Egyptian staff, his fingers heavy with gaudy rings. He looks to one side with calculated insouciance, a small white bone in his nose. Is he a shaman or a fashion model? Perhaps in this cheeky goof on exoticism he is both.
Other images mine ethnic paradoxes. In “Leo and Camille, Ellensburg, Washington” (1991), a Native American boy and girl pose in decorative tribal costumes. The outfits seem authentic until you notice they are partly composed of American flags and eagles. Is the clash of cultures in their clothes an attempt to peacefully blend native culture with that of its exterminators? If so, is it the children’s attempt to do so or the clothing-maker’s? Or both?
Burns is part of a pedigree of “outsider” portrait-photographers that includes Arbus and Mapplethorpe. Like those artists, she delights in confronting the mainstream with the “other.” But it’s also clear from the smiles and poses of her subjects that this is no circus sideshow — they love beguiling the “straight” world too, perhaps as much as they love having their pictures taken. S
“Maurice Bonds: A Retrospective” and “Portrait of America” run through Aug. 2 at the Anderson Gallery at 907« W. Franklin St.
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