In 1978, Rhode Island College presented “Four from Providence.” The exhibit was a call to revitalize the reputations of four Providence artists of color who had often been overlooked since their peaks in the late 19th and early 20th century: Edward Bannister, Elizabeth Nancy Prophet, Frank Alston Jr., and Wilmer Jennings.
CALM Dilworth’s Margaret.
Best remembered is Bannister (1828-1901), an African-American landscape painter, one the founders of the Providence Art Club, and once a trustee of the Rhode Island School of Design. He won a major art prize at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, but when the organizers realized his race, they tried to rescind the award, only to finally did give it to him under pressure from other competing artists. Today, one of Bannister’s paintings is in the collection of the White House — though his work remains little known.
But people are working on it. He’s the namesake of Rhode Island College’s Bannister Gallery as well as the unaffiliated Bannister Society, which was founded in 1998 to celebrate African-American artists and foster inclusive art experiences.
Bob Dilworth of the Bannister Society, with some advice from Bannister Gallery director James Montford, has organized the “Five From Providence: The Tradition Continues,” featuring work by living Rhode Island artists Dilworth, Cynthia Ross-Meeks, Eric Telfort, Pamela Council, and McDonald Wright at Rhode Island College’s Banister Gallery (600 Mount Pleasant Avenue, Providence, through July 16). The title heralds noble intentions as well as bravado, aiming to attach this art into this history. The problem is much of the work is so-so.
The best works are Wright’s photos of jazz musicians. He uses old-school film special effects, making multiple exposures on a single film negative, to capture repeated overlapping shots of trumpeter Wallace Roney or James Carter and his sax. Sometimes the effect is too straightforward and simple, like a 2008 photo of Sonny Rollins that just repeats him three times across. The Roney photo instead gets close to his lips, then looks at his hand and the details of his horn. It’s cubist, glimpsing important details that we reassemble in our minds into a portrait of the whole. And it has the rhythm and improvisation of jazz.
Dilworth’s seven-foot-tall canvases of older African-Americans lounging in their living rooms echo Alice Neel (expressionist paint handling, heavy purple outlines) and Philip Pearlstein (deadpan figures, complicated overlapping patterns) in African-American settings. Elizabeth features two women — or the same woman twice? — seated in a green plaid easy chair working the TV remote. Dilworth struggles with faces and anatomy, and her green skin is jarring. The promise of these paintings is how Dilworth carves out visual space, especially with dramatic foreshortening. And depicting a floral rug, Asian screen and its shadows, floral wallpaper, he attempts a tour de force of contrasting patterns.
Ross-Meeks stitches together crazy quilts from patchworks of autumn reds, browns, and gold fabrics, often with African-style patterns. One has a fringe of straw; another incorporates sketches of African masks or pre-Columbian petroglyphs to call out African and Native American traditions. The quilts are good, but the references sit awkwardly together.