CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Expressing oppression: The colors of black and white


Confession: I've been avoiding the University of Virginia Art Museum. My unpleasant visit there in November combined with the University's abrupt removal of longtime director Jill Hartz led to my personal boycott. But Barack Obama's recent speech addressing race in America made me want to see the Museum's current exhibition, "The Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art."

The show's premise is interesting: to examine American connotations of "plantation" by looking at its depiction in art from the antebellum South to the present day. In many white Americans' imaginations, "plantation" conjures images of genteel life on expansive estates. For African Americans, however, "plantation" signifies a horrific historic period when blacks were treated as sub-human.

To explore these divergent views, curators Angela D. Mack and Maurie D. McInnis forgo a traditional historical approach and, instead, group the exhibition's works around themes such as "Nostalgia," "Politics," and "Identity." Winslow Homer, William Aiken Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kara Walker are just a few of the heavy-hitters among the more than 50 artists represented in this ambitious undertaking.

I wanted to like the show, I really did. Its scope is commendable, including not only two-dimensional works and sculpture, but also books, film clips, and functional art, like baskets and pottery. Unfortunately, the lack of chronological order leaves the works feeling scattered and uneven. With overlapping themes, it's often unclear why the curators chose a work for one section rather than another, and while the large signage is oversimplified, the small signage is exhaustingly biographical. Plus, the show needs serious editing– how many gracious 19th century vistas are really necessary to illustrate the point that artists generally omitted references to slavery?

Which is not to say there aren't stellar works on display. Both Carrie Mae Weems and Stephen Marc amaze with their combinations of text and image that reflect both white attitudes and black experiences. And William Dunlap's visually arresting mixed-media painting, "Landscape and Variable: Bounty and the Burden of History," is rife with disturbing interpretive possibilities.

As for the Museum experience, my visit was no more pleasant than last time. To my dismay, since Hartz's departure, the cutting-edge New Media Gallery has been turned into a storage room for visitors' bags. And on this go-round, a guard chastised me for taking notes with a pen rather than a pencil. 

Unlike Arnold in The Terminator, I won't be back.

The exhibition, "The Landscape of Slavery," is on view at the UVA Art Museum through April 20. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.