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Summoning the Spirits 

In English it is called "the spirit of the times," but the Germans have a single word for it, "zeitgeist," which is somehow more evocative, more suggestive of a force of nature. As the major unseen factor in determining who's who and what's what, all artists must either work with or against the prevailing zeitgeist if they are to succeed. True to her own symbol-laden name, mixed-media and performance artist Faith Ringgold is a case in point.

Starting out as a schoolteacher, she became an epochal figure by confronting and then riding the zeitgeist of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, decades in which the civil rights and then women's rights movements were in full flower. Today, at 71, her once-revolutionary art works no longer seem startling, but have assumed a patina of history even as they remain as whimsical and lyrical as ever. Never prone to bombast, Ringgold pursued change through an art that told stories and asked questions. To do this, she employed fabric, the most feminine of all media, starting in the 1970s. Actually, her initial inspiration arose from an encounter with Tibetan thangkas, scroll paintings, at an Amsterdam museum in 1972.

Her fabric art was stylish, down-home yet exotic, from the start. Slave Rape Series 8: Fight, 1973, is thangka-like, a painted scroll depicting a pregnant black female nude in a primeval wood. She is almost cartoonish, displaying round-eyed fear and dismay along with her elaborate African jewelry. She clutches an archaic ritual blade, and the effect is Asian yet Western, decorative yet cutting, heavy but light. It challenges, yet goes down smoothly, like a children's illustration for the edification of adults.

The Wedding Lovers, 1986, takes a different tack. A "story quilt," it is part of her quilt series begun in 1980 with help from her mother. Here the painted central panel depicts well-dressed black folk at a wedding. It is framed by the rest of the colorfully patterned fabric and bisected by a long vertical column of writing, like pages from a journal. It's the story of two men, Larry and Luther, a grocer and an ordained minister respectively, as seen by the narrator, who happens to be Luther's wife and Larry's lover. It's a very human story, vaguely biblical, fraught with irony and fatalism. As usual, Ringgold melds dramatic content with a light touch and a more than liberal dose of irony. It's an approach that stood her in good stead for her preferred occupation today as a writer and illustrator of children's stories. Yet, despite her notoriety as one of most prominent feminist fabric artists, that may have been what she was all along -- a teller of tales for the child within us all, regardless of age. It makes for a concise and colorful retrospective from an important American artist. Ringgold once responded to a 1970 protest art exhibit that was limited to men only by declaring war on sexism. She got her way and was included in the show. Things were simpler then.

In keeping with the current zeitgeist, Heather Weathers, Gabriella Mills and Sarah Spell have collaborated on a series of graphics dealing with the plight of artists in an age of a cranked-up consumerism that is too hyper and scattered for anyone to have much awareness of anything, while Sarah Maholland's expressionistic paintings explore the retro convolutions of cultural evolution.

When sound bytes pass for discussion and graphics flashed in nanoseconds take the place of contemplation, digital displays are the mode of the day. In Fuel the Arts, Weathers, nude as usual, appears on a motorcycle against a background of oversized $50 and $100 bills. In another, she appears in a Hindu Diva pose against huge $5 and $20 bills looming in the background. Boldface print above announces "We Accept All Denominations" while the text below exhorts us to "Give It Up for the Arts" -- a commentary on the rival religions of art and money and the points where they intersect. Known for performance art such as her prime-cut haute couture -- red-meat bikinis and the like -- Weathers appears with the Devyani Belly Dance Troupe and fire dancer Sami Young among others on the evening of June 21. As in Faith Ringgold's heyday, protest and performance go hand in hand. For some artists, at least, the "zeit" may change but the "geist" remains much the same.

click to enlarge Faith Ringgold's Slave Rape Series 8: Fight, 1973 is a study in contrasts: Asian yet Western, decorative yet cutting, heavy but light.
  • Faith Ringgold's Slave Rape Series 8: Fight, 1973 is a study in contrasts: Asian yet Western, decorative yet cutting, heavy but light.
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