Bearden’s ‘Black Odyssey’ explores longing for home

CorrespondentDecember 29, 2012 

  • Details What: “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey.” Where: Reynolda House Museum of American Art, 2250 Reynolda Road. Winston-Salem When: Through Jan. 13 Cost: $10, adults; $9, age 60+, teachers, AAA members; free for children under 18, students and military personnel with I.D. Info: 336-758-5150 or reynoldahouse.org

— After Bearden-mania swept Charlotte in the fall of 2011 – when exhibition spaces all over town mounted shows celebrating the 100th anniversary of Romare Bearden’s birth – you could be excused for thinking you’d seen enough work by the noted artist and Charlotte native.

But a Bearden exhibition in Winston-Salem is worth the drive. It may have you seeing a literary classic in a new light.

Reynolda House Museum of American Art is the first stop on a seven-city tour for “The Black Odyssey,” an exhibit of 55 works that includes nearly 20 collages from the stunning 1977 “Odysseus Series.”

For Bearden, these vivid collages did not simply illustrate Homer’s “Odyssey” – they were a collaboration, a re-envisioning of the epic poem describing Odysseus’ heroic 10-year journey home after the Trojan War. “The Odyssey” also venerates strong women, from Penelope, who doesn’t just wait for husband Odysseus to come home but must turn back swarms of obnoxious suitors, to the Sirens who try to lure Odysseus to his death.

Bearden saw “The Odyssey” as a story that transcends race and culture. It is, as curator Robert G. O’Meally writes, “about a son’s longing for a missing father, a wife’s dealings with men who would take her husband’s place, a traveling man’s efforts to resist the wiles of goddesses and witches....”

Most importantly, it is about longing for home. It was not a stretch for Bearden to see Odysseus as a black man.

The “Odysseus Series” is a synthesis of inspirations and ambitions – a reflection of Bearden’s devotion to jazz improvisation and world literature, his poetic grasp of universal symbols and rituals and much more. Take all that away, and you still have visually engrossing, boldly colored works from an artist who essentially used scissors as a drawing tool.

The show is an educational experience, which is both a strength and a weakness.

Wall texts and a video (plus a companion book, a worthwhile splurge) take viewers through the story of “The Odyssey,” explain tricksters and other archetypes, and describe the rich web of ideas involved in bringing this ancient story to a modern audience. But the abundant texts, as well as large blocks of color on the walls, verge on clutter that threatens to compete with the art.

Although filled with complex imagery, these collages are made with solid color papers, giving them a visual simplicity that heightens the drama of the story. For example, in “Circe Turns a Companion of Odysseus into a Swine,” the elegant execution helps mask Circe’s trickery, almost mirroring her deception.

In general, the work has an otherworldly quality.

“For all the emphasis in Bearden’s ‘Odysseus’ series on reclaiming a home,” curator O’Meally writes, “it strikes me that Bearden’s most sought-after home is not a physical place at all but a dreamscape, a magic garden of the mind.”

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