In the ArtForum Critics’ Picks section, Chris Howard writes about Rico Gatson’s excellent show at Exit Art. A mid-career survey, the exhibition includes many new paintings from 2011 that combine a hard-edge geometric abstraction with iconic images, patterns, colors and phrases from African-American culture. According to the press release, the title of the exhibition, “Three Trips Around the Block,” stems from “a powerful experience Gatson had with his brother who, after spending fifteen years in prison, reconnected with the artist by taking a long walk around the block. The conversation that occurred during their ‘trips around the block’ inspired Gatson to creatively explore their own disparate lives – a personal excavation made public in this poignant exhibition.”
I agree with Howard that the new paintings are among Gatson’s best.
Emblems simplify complex matters and often slide dangerously into propaganda. Using the clean lines and precise forms of familiar signs and symbols, Rico Gatson’s art does the opposite, opening wide a world of resounding significance. As seen in this fifteen-year survey, Gatson’s achievement comes in part from his recurring subject matter—twentieth-century African-American history—but also from his keen exploitation of wide-ranging visual strategies, with sources including hardedge abstraction, Minimalist sculpture, Soviet-era posters, and Emory Douglas’s iconic designs, among others. The exhibition forgoes chronology and skims over earlier breakthrough videos to focus almost exclusively on Gatson’s painting, sculpture, and mixed-media output from the past five years. Nearly half the forty-six works date to 2011 alone; yet many of these pieces should be counted among Gatson’s best.
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