In keeping with its name, the Forward Arts Foundation invests in the future with an annual award to a talented Atlanta artist who has had no major solo show and is not connected with a commercial gallery. The prize is $10,000 and a solo show at the Swan Coach House Gallery, which the foundation operates.
Cosmo Whyte, the 2009-10 winner, is a very good choice. If you saw his delicate, haunting drawings at Agnes Scott College’s Dalton Gallery or at Marcia Wood Gallery in past years, you probably remember them. (At left: a detail of “High Tide,” at Swan.)
In the current exhibit, titled “The Morning Passage,” he shows what else he can do. In addition to the intimate graphite drawings, the exhibit includes mixed-media works that make deft use of cut paper, collage and glitter as well as super-sized color photos, which are the weak link, but more about that later.
Masculinity, memory and ancestry are themes Whyte explores here. He links pieces of varied scales and materials through the repetition of ambiguous motifs.
One motif is an African-American male wrapped in a plethora of men’s ties. On one hand, the dreadlocked figure — sometimes in a business suit, sometimes naked — is blinded or constrained by the ties, perhaps an allusion to male responsibility, or, as Whyte has suggested, a more sophisticated form of Western bondage. On the other, the ties’ profusion of color and pattern brings to mind the glories of African textiles and the adornment of African sculpture.
The other motif, the boat, is, among other things, a positive symbol of journey — physical, mental and spiritual — and a reference to slavery and the Middle Passage.
Ambiguity can make for a rich experience, but sometimes you just can’t have it both ways. Sometimes Whyte asks his symbols to do too much. How can the ties, with their obvious constraining force, also symbolize the African divining rods to which he makes reference?
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