Some may consider the simple, rash designs of Purvis Young-which are reminiscent of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat-to not deserve a showcase at a respectable art museum. However, the pieces produced by this artist who lives in the black ghetto of Overtown deserve much attention, serving well to colorize the insipidness of Miami’s downtown area and display a world that has nothing to do with the tall, spangled glass skyscrapers and bank buildings that permeate this vicinity. The Bass Museum of Art is currently exhibiting Purvis Young: The Life I See as a celebration of the man’s life and vision as his 60th birthday rapidly approaches.
Jim Lawrence of the Bass describes Young to be an innocent, genuine soul. Nonetheless, the artist soars way beyond innocence and has become, perhaps, an informal historian of the black ghetto and the people who have lived through it.
Back in the late ’60s, Young was sentenced for armed robbery and was encouraged by a prison attendant to paint. He lives in an unventilated warehouse in Overtown, where there are no business signs and hardly a street number. He doesn’t ask for much and just wants to visually comment on the underprivileged people and the destitution that surrounds him.
“People around here rip each other off,” he says on his website. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Even his art is born out of donations – whatever paint he is given, usually of the household variety, whatever materials he can paint on, he turns into his own, unmistakable brand of art, constructing frame panels from scraps of wood. His work can be described as primitive, passionate and spiritual and may have a certain similarity to the works of abstract expressionists, yet it all conveys a very personal, bona fide vision.
The Bass’ exhibit shows the steady progression of Young’s work, from the very first rough angels painted on jaggedly framed pieces of driftwood to his growth into a recognized and respected artist who paints murals for high-end buildings (such as the Setai) on South Beach. He eloquently expresses the effects of living in Miami during the 1960’s throughout the turbulence of Miami’s race riots and the suffering of segregation and the civil rights movement. Young illustrates the reality he has lived through without pretense or obscure use of metaphor. “Untitled (six men holding locks and trapped in barbed wire)” shows the struggles to overcome racial oppression in the 1960’s and 1970’s. “Untitled (boats on the ocean, figures, mountains)” depicts the magnitude of the middle passage on roughly hewn squares of wood and masonite. He is influenced by his Bahamian heritage and paints the images that are closest to his heart-the migration of Caribbean people to America by boat, the wondrous fertility represented by pregnant women and the omnipresence of angelic forces in our lives.
The heartache and pain of Liberty City and Overtown are transmitted into his more recent works. “Untitled (angel crying over truck carrying workers)” tells the story of the men who would be taken from Liberty City every day to work in agricultural fields for minimal returns. Some themes take a more sobering turn to speak of deeper urban pain. Images of funeral processions, churches and flames crop up more and more in his work. The angels he has always liked to portray gradually begin to take on more clearly defined forms and features in later pieces, their halos becoming larger and brighter. “Untitled (man on crutches)” is painted on a door with a knob for furthering effect. Here, there’s a man on crutches with a halo and the faint outline of angel wings sprouting from his back. “Untitled (angels looking down on riot in the city)” is exquisitely poignant; each angel looks down upon the flames and destruction with different vivid expressions of pain, sorrow and anger.
Young has written it himself: “The street is real life…you come out here and feel the workings of the world…that’s all you need to be an artist.” None of these works are cold, calculated or deliberately exaggerated. The painter just stays close to his home-the streets-and observes, experiences and feels what he sees, all of which is then transferred onto his art to make the audience sense as well what he is trying to express.
The exhibit is on view through November 10. Call 305-673-7530 for more info.
Patrice Grell Yursik can be reached at email@example.com