May 2008, Purvis Young at the Gallery Bar

 Purvis Young, 'Da Hood, Paint and shellac on masonite, 30h x 20w inches,
 Courtesy Skot Foreman Fine Art

The Power of Purvis
“Protest: Paintings by Purvis Young”
Gallery Bar
An Exhibition curated by Skot Foreman
May 1 through June 17, 2008

Being born in the south before the civil rights movement, Purvis Young witnessed the ugly visage of injustice first-hand. I was privileged to have an up-front and personal view of his memories when I attended the Gallery Bar’s opening night of Protest featuring the works of this self-taught artist, and visual urban griot. Purvis’ work slaps you into the reality of ghetto life – its plight and its pain. It is raw, disturbing, and emotional. It is uncompromising in its presentation. There is no possible way to view his work and not be moved.

Purvis Young’s passion for his beliefs burst through in his paintings and collages. When walking into the Gallery Bar’s intimate space I was sucked into Purvis’ vision. I saw crude, squiggly brush strokes of black images – masses of people caught in the system. In the debris and wooded boards he took from the streets to express his views about society, I observed the very people that are stuck in between the cogs of the machine that are grinded into the grease that the machine uses to function. Some were faceless; others wore their heartache on their face. The anguish of discontentment was evident on the face of man himself as he spoke in a documentary that played throughout the opening. Etched into his skin were the hardships that inspire him to create and appear consistently in his work. In his eyes was the rage that fueled dozens of pieces of art that were sprawled around, literally swallowing him as he spoke in his studio in Florida where the documentary was filmed. Unfortunately, he is gravely ill and was unable to travel to New York to attend the opening.

 Purvis Young, Lookin' in, Lookin' Out, Paint on wood, 48h x 87w inches, Courtesy Skot Foreman Fine Art

 Purvis Young, Cross Lynching, Paint on corrugated board with collage-style frame,
 35h x 48w inches, Courtesy Skot Foreman Fine Art

The pieces displayed ranges from 1980’s to the mid 90’s. Purvis’ work might appear pleasing to the eye upon first glance, because of the bright beautiful colors he uses, but the closer the eye gets to the work the more the truth of the underbelly of urban life becomes exposed. His style is as gritty and dramatic as the city life he is inspired by. Gangland Warfare, circa 1990’s, is one of first pieces you see as you enter. It is also one of the most powerful and disturbing works in the exhibit. The vision of young men going to their graves made me think of precarious predicament of the youths that live with the reality of poverty who fight and die for street credibility. City Life, circa 1980’s, had primitive and unrefined bodies in motion. Purvis shows the industrial side of the city with trucks and train cars. Rusty nails protrude from the piece and saw dust covers the frame representing the squalid nature of city living. My favorite work displayed was Behind Bars, a collage circa 1995. The images appear flaccid like penises caught in a makeshift cell made of rubber tubing. I saw the future confined and ultimately being decimated as a large percentage of black men are wasting away in the penal system. As a black woman this piece rocked me to the core.

The Gallery Bar, located on 120 Orchard Street, is presenting Protest. The chic décor and chill vibe along with the intoxicating work of Purvis Young’s works on display seemed to make the perfect cocktail. Darrin Rubell, owner of the Gallery Bar, felt that the atmosphere was perfect to bring Purvis Young’s ghetto narratives to New York. “Purvis Young’s exhibit is an important show for Gallery Bar,” Darrin stated during the opening, “especially given the current political climate. Purvis has spent his whole life protesting, which is very apparent in all his work. We as a country, in my opinion, are at an all time low. Between the war, healthcare, and our economy, no one seems to take an active position anymore. Today I hear small cries, but nothing to the magnitude I would expect. It is this very reason, we are proud to show Purvis Young and hope that he can be an inspiration to all of us.”

 Purvis Young, Refugees, Prison Bars and Eye of the System,
 Paint on metal shelf, 36h x 24w inches, Courtesy Skot Foreman Fine Art

Overall the exhibit revealed a man that has learned to harness his rage and dedicated his life to creating provocative art with controlled fury. As I walked through the exhibit I thought of pictures and documentaries I saw of the civil rights movement in the ‘60s. I thought of the song We Shall Overcome, which seemed to be a rallying cry for people dedicated to bring about positive change. Looking at Purvis Young’s work made me realize that we as a nation haven’t overcome. As disheartening as that revelation was, the dynamic energy that is shown in his frenzied brushstrokes makes me hope that those who view his work will walk away with a myriad of emotions stirring inside and the desire to change the society for the better.

Afrika Brown

Afrika Brown is a published poet and freelance writer in New York City.


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