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Out of the Comfort Zone: Social Commentary at Brentwood Arts Exchange


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Bill Harris' freestanding sculpture: "Cullen," a work commissioned by the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 2012 to honor Cullen Swinson, the school's first academic dean since 2006, a superb scholar and musician who played the cello. Photo by Wanda Jackson

Bill Harris' freestanding sculpture: "Cullen," a work commissioned by the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 2012 to honor Cullen Swinson, the school's first academic dean since 2006, a superb scholar and musician who played the cello. Photo by Wanda Jackson

Published on: Friday, February 14, 2014

Wanda Jackson, Sentinel Arts Reporter

Who hasn't listened or engaged in talk radio, or taken "fingers to keyboard" on the internet about an issue for the purpose of sharing a specific point of view? Even editorial cartoons, such as those in The New Yorker, express opinions, often with a humorous slant.

Using his art as a platform, Washingtonian Bill Harris expresses his views—often subtly and obliquely, or sometimes boldly—about community, history, and the ups and downs of social struggle.

Bill Harris greets arts patrons at opening reception for his exhibit at Brentwood Arts Exchange. Photo by Wanda Jackson

Bill Harris greets arts patrons at opening reception for his exhibit at Brentwood Arts Exchange. Photo by Wanda Jackson

Harris' works are on display through March 8 in a new exhibit titled "The Commentary: Bill Harris" at the Brentwood Arts Exchange, located in the Gateway Arts Center, Brentwood, MD.

Perhaps best known as a printmaker, Harris is also an accomplished wood turner, and brings the two processes together in masterful wall-mounted sculptures that contrast exacting technical precision with vibrant color in complex, dynamic form. 

Area arts aficionados will at once recognize Harris' work as an understated yet powerful perspective on Washington's strong tradition of off-the-wall canvases and bold all-over treatment of color that anchors much of the regional community. 

With references to flight as freedom, as well as bullets, arrows, African masks -- sometimes with hair and military-style medals, his works initiate conversations about slavery, freedom, sexism, racism, history, war, hope and perseverance.

In "The Royalty of Sojourner's Truth," Harris incorporates two dark black long plaits, alluding to the abolitionist's best known extemporaneous speech on gender inequalities, "Ain't I a Woman?," delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention. Wrapped stilt-like poles illustrate Harris' grasp of Truth's courage to stand up and speak even in the 1800s about abolition, women's rights, prison reform and capital punishment. 

Harris' "Judith Jamison," a 58-by-46-by-3-inch printed canvas over wood three-dimensional wall relief, demonstrates the strength, balance and concentration of the master American dancer and choreographer. As moving as Jamison's famous solo, "Cry," the attitude, the demeanor of the larger-than-life figure shaped by the work is intensely physical and emotionally engaging. Like "Cry," it perhaps celebrates the journey of a woman coming out of a troubled and painful world to find the strength to overcome and conquer.

Given full reign of the gallery in Brentwood Arts Exchange, Harris' exhibition is engaging and offers space for interpretation, and "if you're open to it, teaches," according to a pre-show news release.

Harris is a graduate of Howard University with a BFA in Design and MFA in Printmaking and Drawing.  From 1991 through 2006, he was a member of the Washington Printmakers Gallery.  Harris is a founding faculty member and former chair of the art department at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the District of Columbia.  He has served as an adjunct/associate professor at Howard University and a panelist for both the DC Commission On The Arts And Humanities, and the Maryland State Arts Council.  His work has been exhibited throughout the Washington metropolitan area as well as New York, Philadelphia, Colorado, New Orleans, and Cali, Columbia.

Brentwood Arts Exchange is located in the Gateway Arts Center at 3901 Rhode Island Avenue, Brentwood, MD. More information about "The Commentary: Bill Harris" exhibit and other programs at Brentwood Arts Exchange can be found online: http://arts.pgparks.com.

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