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"We Came from There to Get Here": Joe Overstreet’s Art Across Frontiers

Birmingham Bombing [Figure 5] is one of two paintings Overstreet made in response to an appalling act of racial violence: the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which resulted in the deaths of four young girls. The painting’s lurid intensity reminds me a little of the German Expressionists, whose work Overstreet had been studying at the time, but when I asked if he had intended to imply a comparison with the Nazi atrocities of the 1930s, he demurred, saying the painting was his “emotional response” to the bombing. Certainly the canvas seems almost to scream out in horror, fury and anguish.

Painting - Joe Overstreet, Strange Fruit, 1964/65
Figure 6. Joe Overstreet, Strange Fruit, 1964/65. Oil on canvas, 46" × 40". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan

This is Strange Fruit [Figure 6], from 1964-65, which was, in part, his reaction to the lynchings of the 1950s and 1960s and, in particular, to the murder of the three young Civil Rights workers, Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner, in Mississippi in 1964 (an event to which his 2003 Pearl River also alludes). But Overstreet has said that, on a more personal level, the painting was also a response to his listening, over a number of years, to Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching recording, ‘Strange Fruit’, and to his seeing, in a magazine, a photograph of a particularly notorious lynching, in which one of the victims had looked a little like his younger brother: "I felt the most ridiculous anger I’ve ever felt, seeing this innocent kid they had maimed and disfigured and the neck was stretched. That photograph, and the Billie Holiday song, was probably what brought the painting together for me."[10] Overstreet also told me that he had tried to convey all the hatred that goes into lynching by the tautness of the rope, and, as critic Ann Gibson has noted, the odd diagonal line the rope takes gives the painting an off-kilter axis, reinforcing the feeling of a world turned morally askew by this hatred.[11]

Painting by Joe Overstreet, The New Jemima, 1964
Figure 7. Joe Overstreet, The New Jemima, 1964. Acrylic on fabric over plywood construction, 102" × 61" × 17". The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester.

In a complete contrast of mood, this is The New Jemima [Figure 7], in which Overstreet gives a humorous spin to the old “mammy” stereotype of Aunt Jemima, the minstrel character (originally a white man in blackface) whose smiling visage had appeared on a popular brand of pancake mix since the late 19th century. Here, a radicalised Jemima gleefully shoots down those pancakes with a machine-gun. The giant box Overstreet constructed for her—the painting is on fabric that is stretched over a plywood frame—prefigures the shaped canvases that he made later in the 1960s.

Painting by Joe Overstreet, North Star, 1967
Figure 8. Joe Overstreet, North Star, 1967. Acrylic on shaped canvas, 94" × 84". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Danny Dawson

North Star [Figure 8], for instance, shown here with the artist in attendance. The title alludes to the Underground Railroad and the work is in part a tribute to Harriet Tubman, whose favourite song, according to Overstreet, was ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’. Which would be appropriate, since the Drinking Gourd is another name for the constellation of the Big Dipper, which, of course, points to the North Star that, like Tubman herself, guided runaway slaves to freedom. Overstreet also has recourse to Native American art here, his geometrical markings perhaps reminiscent of Navajo sand painting and rug making, while the canvas’s escape from the rectangle and its pushing away from the wall can be seen as a step towards the suspended canvases of the later Flight Pattern series.

Painting by Joe Overstreet, Gay Head, 1985
Figure 9. Joe Overstreet, Gay Head, 1985. Acrylic on canvas with wood, 79" × 62". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

Perhaps his most overt homage to Native American culture is the Vineyard series of 1985, which references the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard and the Choctaw Indians from Conehatta, in rural Mississippi, where Overstreet was born. Gay Head [Figure 9] is named after a town on Martha’s Vineyard that was first settled by the Wampanoag, who still have a reservation there, although the town has since been renamed Aquinnah. The shaped canvas, stretched on crossed dowel supports, has been likened to both teepees and, perhaps more tenuously, to the African American shotgun houses of the Deep South, the origins of which have been traced back to West Africa.[12] Overstreet represents the brightly coloured clay cliffs from which Gay Head took its name by modifying the drip technique of Jackson Pollock (he poured paint onto plastic drop cloths, let it dry, then lifted it off and cut it into various shapes, which he collaged onto the canvas); a reminder that abstract expressionism is also a part of the aesthetic heritage on which, as a reconstructed American, he is free to draw. (Or, perhaps, a reminder of the claim that the early abstract expressionists were influenced by Native American art.)

Painting by Joe Overstreet, The Hoodoo, 1988
Figure 10. Joe Overstreet, The Hoodoo, 1988. Oil on canvas, 78" × 64". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Frank Stewart.

Turning to Overstreet’s uses of African art, The Hoodoo [Figure 10], from his 1988 Storyville series, about the birth of jazz in New Orleans, directly “quotes” several different traditions of West African art. The figure in red is Marie Laveau, known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, and Overstreet suggests the persistence of West African belief systems in the black culture of early 20th century New Orleans by figuring Laveau in the style of Fang sculpture (which he had previously referenced in his 1959 painting Menagerie), and by placing beside her images of a Congolese funerary mask and an Ashante fertility statue; while, hidden almost in plain view, the figure of the piano-playing Professor appears as a spindly yellow silhouette that, according to critic Thomas Piché, Jr, is “related to Dogon-style sculpture”.[13] All of which takes place within an overall, semi-figurative stylistic context that can perhaps be seen as a kind of black post-modern versioning of European fin de siècle Post-Impressionism; or, at least, as a reflection of Overstreet’s admiration for painters such as Van Gogh and Matisse.

The Professor—a title commonly accorded New Orleans pianists—is a recurring presence in the Storyville series and his resemblance to Dogon sculpture in this painting is perhaps an acknowledgement that the roots of jazz, like those of hoodoo and voodoo, can be traced back to West African sources. But jazz, as the African American manifestation of that music, is the major focus of the Storyville series and Overstreet wanted in particular to pay tribute to the brothel keepers and prostitutes who, he says, gave the music a home and, by nurturing it through its early years, “helped to preserve the culture”.[14]

Painting by Joe Overstreet, For Buddy Bolden, 1988
Figure 11. Joe Overstreet, For Buddy Bolden, 1988. Oil on canvas, 78" × 64". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Frank Stewart.

Several of the canvases either depict musicians or refer to well-known recordings, such as Louis Armstrong’s ‘St. James Infirmary’ (St. James Infirmary) or Clarence Williams’s ‘Royal Garden Blues’ (Garden Blues). For Buddy Bolden [Figure 11] salutes the legendary New Orleans cornetist who is regarded as the progenitor of jazz. As Overstreet has noted, “They say Buddy Bolden’s sound was so loud and clear he could be heard all over town when he played in Lincoln Park,”[15] and he signals the music’s power by imprinting it on the air, the notes floating overhead as if waiting to seed the future history of jazz. Overstreet had often used a trowel or a palette knife in preference to brushes, but for the Storyville series he used newspaper to apply paint to the canvas, a technique he adopted because he felt the resulting textures offered a visual equivalent to the distinctive timbres of early jazz.[16] This is a good example of how Overstreet reconstructs the past in his art, his emotional response to the music guiding not only his choice of subject but also the means he uses to represent it.

Painting by Joe Overstreet, Monk’s Kitchen, 2001
Figure 12. Joe Overstreet, Monk’s Kitchen, 2001. Oil on steel wire cloth, 36" × 37". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Anthony Barboza.

Jazz has often played an important role in Overstreet’s art, from 1957’s The Hawk, for Horace, a playful spoof of Cubism sparked, so he says, by the musicians calling him a square, to 2001’s Monk’s Kitchen [Figure 12], in which we see the shadowy outline of the great pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, sitting amidst an exuberant starburst of refracted colours and geometrical patterns—an apt analogy for a music that can often sound angular and dissonant yet is always boldly dynamic and coheres to its own inner logic. Such a painting could be seen as evidence of Overstreet effecting a special kind of cross-cultural exchange, between different art forms, though perhaps that is a topic for another day. However, there is no doubt that his art pays tribute to jazz and the journey it has taken, from the “there” of its birth in Storyville’s brothels to the “here” of its current global presence, crossing all frontiers on (and in) its way to becoming, as Overstreet has described it, African-America’s “greatest contribution to the world”.[17]

Painting by Joe Overstreet, Inner Chambers, 1991
Figure 13. Joe Overstreet, Inner Chambers, 1991. Oil with collage on canvas, 54" × 43". The Bynum-Costin Collection. Image courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

Moving on, and back to Africa, we see a different facet of African culture informing this painting, Inner Chambers [Figure 13], from the Tension series of the early 1990s. Overstreet again employs rope throughout, not for suspending the canvases, as in the Flight Pattern series, but as material that is collaged onto the surface and fraught with multiple associations. In Overstreet’s words, the series is “concerned with tension and the problem of stress and weight”, yet has “an underlying focus on the fragile threads that tie man to man and bind the material, intellectual and spiritual worlds”.[18] Inner Chambers exemplifies much of this and also points to the origins of his interest in rope—namely, his fascination with the ancient Egyptian Rope Stretchers, the Harpedonaptae, who played a crucial role in designing and building the pyramids. This is an interest that Overstreet shared with his father, a skilled stonemason (and a 33rd degree Freemason, the highest degree attainable), with whom he had worked as a young man and who had used rope as a measuring tool in his construction of roads and bridges. His father too was called Joe and the name is discernible to the centre-left of the painting, the coiled rope linking father and son in an image that also links architectural and family histories, the inner chambers of pyramid and heart.

Other paintings in the Tension series address other aspects of black history: Black Star Line, for instance, is named after the shipping company Marcus Garvey founded to take African Americans back to Africa; Galleons and Brigantines, says Corrine Jennings, refers to the “Spanish, Portuguese and English ships that were used in slaving”;[19] and in Golden Measure, Overstreet again aligns his art with earlier African uses of rope and the golden ratio. He says the ropes collaged onto many of the Tension canvases “are always a reference to the Egyptian Rope Stretchers”,[20] but I think, more generally, they also tie together a history that stretches from the pyramids to the slave ships to the contemporary American artist, reconstructing the past and building the self with the tools of his ancestors.

Painting by Joe Overstreet, Sound in Sight, 1991
Figure 14. Joe Overstreet, Sound in Sight, 1991. Oil on canvas collage, 54" × 43". The Mourtala Diop Collection. Image courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

In this context, Sound in Sight [Figure 14] looks, at first glance, like an anomaly, and I think the tranquil pastoral scene, with its tree, wind chime and verdant riverside, is intended to evoke an idyllic future, albeit this is a vision of the future with specific historical roots. The painting is a tribute to George Washington Carver, born into slavery in 1864, later a leading agricultural scientist, who promoted ecological and economic diversity so that Southern agriculture, and African American farmers in particular, might become less dependent on cotton. His views on the natural world impressed Overstreet as almost shaman-like, and Sound in Sight brings a visual allure to Carver’s hope for a future in which (to quote Piché) people will “respect the land” and “live in beauty”.[21] The wind chime, I guess, symbolises the harmony Carver envisioned between the natural and the man-made, its music glimpsed here but still unheard.

Although it looks to the future Sound in Sight, like so many of Overstreet’s works, is imbued with historical and cultural references. Corrine Jennings, for instance, has noted that “the color and geometrical divisions of earth and river are inspired by the charts and samples of richly colored paint George Washington Carver made from natural rocks”; she further suggests the tree “functions also as a reference to African sculpture”, while the “fluttering, toneless wind chime implies the sweep of winds that cross continents”.[22] These allusions to Africa may appear tenuous if we consider Sound in Sight on its own, but in the context of the Tension series, or of Overstreet’s oeuvre as a whole, I think they become entirely plausible.

I’d like to finish with a brief look at the Facing the Door of No Return series from 1993, which I mentioned earlier. These canvases are certainly stirred by winds that cross continents, although they do differ in one important respect from the Tension series: Overstreet no longer employs rope-collages as a metaphor for the ties between past and present, but instead leaves partly visible the geometrical grids that lie beneath the paint he layers onto the canvas. (A relationship between “surface” and “depth” he would explore further, but very differently, in the Silver Screen and Meridian Fields series of the early 2000s.)

Painting by Joe Overstreet, Gorée, 1993
Figure 15. Joe Overstreet, Gorée, 1993. Oil on canvas, 120" × 144". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

Painting by Joe Overstreet, Baobab and Fish, 1993
Figure 16. Joe Overstreet, Baobab and Fish, 1993. Oil on canvas, 120" × 144". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

The Door of No Return itself, located in the slave prison on Gorée at the end of a long, dark corridor, is a narrow aperture, overlooking the ocean, through which slaves had stepped to embark on the Middle Passage, from which there was no return. Overstreet’s paintings reflect his feelings on coming face to face with the traces of this blood-stained history, as in Gorée [Figure 15]; although they’re often overlaid with other impressions too, with lyrical swathes of colours in which he conjures the sights, events and people he encountered on what was his first trip to Africa—as in Baobab and Fish [Figure 16], Dousou’s Field and Dance of the Lepers. In the words of critic Thomas McEvilley, beneath the paintings’ “sumptuous colorism” lurks “the dark secret of Euro-American history—the rape of Africa through slave trade, colonialism, imperialism”.[23] Overstreet, in his closing statement in the exhibition catalogue, puts it in more personal terms:

Our reality is that we have been violated through a passage of history that continues. With all the bitterness and anger that position remains unchanged; thus, the paintings represent the duality of pain and beauty. Undermining the pain brings forth the beauty of the land and the people and the potential happiness of an ultimate resolution; so in this way, the paintings represent hope and optimism.[24]

When I spoke to him about the paintings, I asked if he could say a little more about “the duality of pain and beauty”. How did the paintings represent this notion? His answer was that, for him, the beauty resided in the act of painting itself, in the process of making the painting by recalling the people and landscapes he had seen; whereas the pain was implicit in the dimensions of the canvases and in the geometrical underpinnings of the painting.

When I went to Gorée, I went to the slave house and I paced out the size of the rooms where people were kept; 30 or 40 people kept in a room 10 feet by 12 feet. I thought, oh my God! That got to me. I felt I could hear the moans and cries of those people.

When I came back to New York, I made ten very large paintings, 10 feet by 12 feet. So the pain was in the size—and in the geometry, the grid that’s hidden in the painting, that’s always there.[25]

I think this quote makes clear his reference to the size of the paintings, but his allusion to the hidden geometrical grid requires further explanation. Overstreet has always been fascinated by the geometry of form, the internal dynamics of a painting, and in the early 1970s his father-in-law Wilmer Jennings, himself a noted artist, introduced him to the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, which, along with its whirling squares and logarithmic spirals, Overstreet has used as a geometrical underlay in nearly all of his subsequent work (and which, incidentally, he continues to mark out on the canvas using rope or twine as a measuring tool).

The Fibonacci-based geometrical underlay for the painting 'Exchange'
Figure 17. The Fibonacci-based geometrical underlay for Exchange. From the video documentary Joe Overstreet, The Illustrious: Portrait of an Artist, by Jahn F. M. Overstreet (Oakland, CA: Video Museum, 1995).
Joe Overstreet working on the painting Exchange
Figure 18. Joe Overstreet working on Exchange. From the video documentary Joe Overstreet, The Illustrious: Portrait of an Artist, by Jahn F. M. Overstreet (Oakland, CA: Video Museum, 1995).

Here, for example, at the top [Figure 17], is the Fibonacci-based grid he devised for Exchange, one of the paintings from the Facing the Door of No Return series; and beneath it [Figure 18], we see Overstreet working on the painting. I should perhaps explain that the Fibonacci sequence generates numbers by adding together the sum of the preceding two numbers in the sequence. So if you start with 1 and 1, this gives you 2 as the next number; then you add 1 and 2, so the next number is 3; then add 2 and 3, which gives you 5; then add 3 and 5 . . . and so on: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 etc, etc. These sequences can be translated into geometrical shapes, such as the whirling squares. If we look back at Figure 18, we see two small, light-coloured squares just above and to the right of centre. Let’s say they both measure 1 unit x 1 unit; this gives us the darker square to the right, which is 2 x 2; then, the near-white square above is 3 x 3, and the large, dark square to the left is 5 x 5, and so on, whirling around the initial starting point. Overstreet creates these blocks of colours and then adds further layers of paint over them, “improvising” on the underlying structure (much like the jazz musicians he has long admired), so each work is both precisely ordered and spontaneous.

Painting by Joe Overstreet, Exchange, 1993
Figure 19. Joe Overstreet, Exchange, 1993. Oil on canvas, 120" × 144". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

And here is the finished painting, Exchange [Figure 19], with its surface of “sumptuous colorism” and evocative shapes, which Overstreet has suggested include both cowrie shells, used as currency in some African societies, and human skulls, the skulls of his ancestors, which, he says, haunted his dreams for many months after his return from Gorée.

Painting by Joe Overstreet, Cross Currents, 1993
Figure 20. Joe Overstreet, Cross Currents, 1993. Oil on canvas, 120" × 144". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

What’s unusual about this series of paintings is that traces of the geometrical underlay are often left in view; pointedly so in Cross Currents [Figure 20], but also discernible, albeit less obvious, in several of the other paintings.

Painting by Joe Overstreet, Exit Dust, 1993
Figure 21. Joe Overstreet, Exit Dust, 1993. Oil on canvas, 120" × 144". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

In Exit Dust [Figure 21], for example, we can just see the outline of the whirling squares and the arc of a spiral curving down to the bottom edge of the canvas, just left of centre, and then curling up again. So Overstreet’s remarks about pain suggest the geometrical grid, throughout this series, also functions as a spatial metaphor for the historical processes of slavery and exploitation; how their traces still lie just beneath the surface of everyday life and continue to shape, to obtrude into, Africa’s relations with Europe and America and vice versa.

There’s no time to analyse these paintings in further detail, so I’ll end by suggesting that, in the journey from there to here, displaced African to reconstructed American, the Door of No Return was a significant point of departure, and one of Overstreet’s achievements in these paintings is to bring that journey full circle. “There” and “here”, pain and beauty, come together in a richly syncretic art that is, as he says, essentially optimistic in its promise of “an ultimate resolution”. Underlying this promise is Overstreet’s belief in the universality of art, his conviction that art is (as McEvilley puts it) “a universal human reality” that attracts and affects us all.[26] Or, as he told me in 2003, “I believe in my heart that everything I’ve tried to do, I’ve tried to do it to help all human beings. That’s the universality I’m talking about.”[27] This credo has long guided his work and is the reason his art, as I hope I have shown, remains true to its origins and yet is an art that also soars, sails and swings across frontiers.