Arts and Culture

In the 1990s, artist Purvis Young painted “Christ Watching Over Dudes,” — a swirl of earth-toned figures shadowed by one large olive green face (ostensibly Christ), all arranged on a found wooden plank.

At The Speed Art Museum, Young’s piece is now displayed alongside work by Robert Rauschenberg, an American painter and graphic artist whose early works anticipated the pop art movement. He’s known for his “combines,” in which he took everyday objects and combined them on his canvas as part of his painting.

Rauschenberg holds a firm place in the narrative surrounding American contemporary art; Young does not.

And that’s something contemporary curator Miranda Lash hopes to change — or at least discuss.

The Speed Art Museum

Purvis Young “Christ Watching Over Dudes,” Gift of Gordon W. Bailey in honor of Chuck Pittenger 2016.6.2

On Monday, it was announced that the Speed had received a major gift of 35 contemporary artworks from Los Angeles-based scholar, advocate, and collector Gordon W. Bailey. The gift focuses on artworks created by African-American artists from the southern United States.

“It’s the first occasion that they (all 21 artists) have been exhibited in this region,” Lash says. “It really puts the Speed front-and-center into a national dialogue about eroding the boundaries between artists who are considered fine artists, part of our historical canon — and artists who have been heretofore regarded as outsiders or self-taught.”

Lash explains there has been a movement around the country among curators to more fully integrate these artists into the story of modern and contemporary art.

“So the Speed is taking part in that conversation,” she says.

Her pairing of Young and Rauschenberg — who both incorporated found material into their work — is a prime example of how the new acquisitions fit into the Speed’s collection and can help tell a more complete story of American artistic practice and perception, and the prejudices within.

“What I wanted to do with a number of these artists, like Purvis Young and Charlie Lucas, is show that while using found objects is part of a Southern tradition of yard art, it is also part of the 20th century dialogue of incorporating things from everyday life and making them part of art,” Lash says.

Other highlights from the collection includes “Sunday’s Child” by Willie Birch.

“Sunday’s Child” by artist Willie Birch is a quintessential example of Birch’s work in papier-mâché, a medium he began employing in the mid-1980s.

“Willie Birch, I should say, has never been regarded as ‘self-taught’ or as an ‘outsider’– he has always been a part of the discourse of art,” Lash says. “But he is a very important artist from New Orleans.”

Birch’s sculpture of a young African-American girl includes a round, glass-covered box affixed to her chest filled with objects.

“I love the piece because it demonstrates Willie Birch’s familiarity with the influence of Africa and African diaspora in New Orleans culture,” Lash says.

She explains that the box filled with precious articles is a reference to Nkisi figures from West Africa — some of which can actually be seen at the Speed’s African gallery.

A large selection of these new artworks will be on display in the Speed’s contemporary galleries on the second floor of the North building through Feb. 5, 2017. More information is available here.

Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.