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Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
May 2019

Rubell exhibit highlights the scope of his vision and output

AArtFeature_1_Boat_Peoplertist Purvis Young is the best known and most cherished artist Miami has produced. This is not hyperbole. The prolific native of Overtown and Liberty City observed his rough and rich surroundings, and told stories, often on found objects and refurbished materials, in artworks that are now in local and national collections.

Born in 1943, Young lived through the Jim Crow and the civil rights eras, the destruction of his community due to the freeways that carved up black neighborhoods, and later the drug epidemics that left populations spiritless and sometimes literally lifeless. Young furiously painted these tribulations while infusing the images with a vision of hope and redemption, until his death in 2010.

His works were bought up by locals, at times by people who owned very little other art, and were shown in exhibits and collected by celebrities, including Jane Fonda and Dan Aykroyd. In 1999, one of Miami’s most prominent collectors, the Rubell family, purchased more than 3000 of the artist’s pieces and has since donated about 500 of them to museums and institutions, giving Young an expanded international presence.

Despite this familiarity and his prominence, the depth and diversity of the subjects Young depicted might still surprise a Miami audience, and we can take it all in, thanks to a solo exhibit of more than a hundred of Young’s works at the Rubell Family Collection in Wynwood (the last show in the pioneering space, as the Rubells will move into larger complex in Allapattah in the fall).

While Young painted a specific urban world during turbulent times, his themes were universal in their portrayal of life and death, and unfold in the delineated sections of each gallery.

ArtFeature_2_Pregnant_WomenThe first room, appropriately, is dedicated to paintings of pregnant women, kicking off the exhibit with a note of hope, if still through his somber, signature palette of dark green, burnt yellow, rust, and gray. According to the description of the exhibit (the Rubells produced a 364-page catalogue), Young once said, “The way I feel about it, they all giving birth to angels. They giving birth to a new nation, they gonna start us a new kingdom.” These givers of life were often drawn on found wood (pieces of doors or walls, scrap plywood, as so many of his works were) in elongated shapes, and depicted with halos and wings. (All of Young’s works are untitled.)

But this new nation would gestate in a grim environment. For instance, one woman with an exaggerated belly also wears a syringe on her head.

Other galleries grow darker, divided into topics like “Slaves” and “Prisoners.” His slaves live in a brutal reality, shown shackled together as cargo, as do the prisoners, whose paintings emerge from behind square grids, resembling jail cells.

Young himself spent time in prison for burglary, starting in 1961, where he also started drawing (most of the works here were created between 1980 and 1999). He became inspired to paint by the protests surrounding the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, and was drawn especially to the urban murals being created in Chicago and elsewhere (one section is labeled “Protesters”).

Juan Roselione-Valadez, director of the Rubell Family Collection, tells Cultured magazine that self-educated black artists are often described as “outsider” artists, as though they came up outside a “normal” tradition. But Roselione-Valadez points out that Young was a voracious consumer of information he gleaned from public radio and television, and in public libraries. He familiarized himself with the works of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, El Greco, and Picasso, and with contemporary artists, coming up with his own style of an abstract impressionism.

ArtFeature_3_FuneralsThis style jumps out in the section “Eyes” -- these orbs staring out at us are surrounded by protesters or slaves, as if to say the oppressive system is always watching even if the general population is neither watching nor caring. And in “Faces,” with works that are commonly associated with Young. These portraits of real people and composites are world-weary and melancholy, looking straight at us and letting us see that what they see is very real, while the paintings themselves can be blurred and abstracted.

Maybe the most dramatic, and traumatic, gallery is called “Funerals.” Overtown and Liberty City have been plagued by violence and untimely death for decades. “I paint funerals and graveyards because I see a lot of my friends pass,” he wrote. “I been to a lot of funerals, guys carrying caskets sometimes. …Death to the people.”

These are grim depictions, filled with crosses and processions.

It comes as no surprise that an earlier gallery is titled “Drugs,” the cause and result of so much of the death. But even there, Young floats in symbols of redemption -- angels pick up the used needles. These images appears directly in the section “Holy Men and Angels.” While Young said he was someone who followed no actual religion, he was a spiritual person, someone who did have faith that all is not rotting and dying.

Young paints this more hopeful vision in paintings, that are some of his best known, of wild horses. Obviously, these animals are not found in inner-city Miami, but to Young they represented freedom, and reference another topic he visits, the history of Native Americans. Although the African-American experience was Young’s main focus, he broadened that interest to native traditions, the Vietnam War, and the plight of people of many different origins, all fleeing oppression.

ArtFeature_4_PrisonersThis is the focus of an interesting gallery titled “Boat People.” Like a rural countryside populated with wild horses, the ocean-faring world was never part of Young’s background, but he had an affinity for boat people, which Miami knows well. Not just Cubans and Haitians, but also the Vietnamese boat people migrations that grabbed the world’s attention in the 1970s, and the “boat people” who landed in the New World on slave ships. It is thought Young’s own grandmother came over on a boat from the Bahamas. While including the devastating experiences of leaving a home by boat (he depicts people drowning, for instance), his images of boats also seem somewhat untethered from the concrete harshness of the city.

The exhibition ends on a note of ultimate freedom, that of the realm of the skies and universe, in “Planets and Stars.” Young said that the cosmos represented a higher purpose, where he could look to the heavens for help and guidance. This Purvis Young survey also ends the run of the Rubells’ private museum in Wynwood on a high note, by helping us rediscover the talent and the significance of one of Miami’s best.

 

“Purvis Young” runs through June 29 at the Rubell Family Collection, 95 NW 29th St., Miami, FL 33127, 305-573-6090, rfc.museum.

 

Feedback: letters@ biscaynetimes.com

 

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