Benny Andrews: Illustrator


Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews, 2015 by Kathleen Benson, Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston & New York

It should be widely known across the art world that Benny Andrews is the ‘Mix-Master.’ Throughout his illustrious career in the visual arts, Andrews has contributed his visionary output to a wide variety of projects and causes. One of these projects was illustrating children’s books.

Andrews’ career as an illustrator is the subject of the current exhibition Benny Andrews, Illustrator, on view at the Morgan County African American Museum in Madison, Georgia.

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Benny Andrews, The Mix Master

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The “Mix Master” himself. Self Portrait, 1962, Ink on paper, 18 x 26 in.

Benny Andrews’ prowess as a master of materials and social and emotional narratives is on display in a current solo exhibition titled Mix Master at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida. The exhibition was realized through the collection of works owned by Edward J. Littlejohn, a renowned expert of African-American legal history.

It is fitting that an outstanding scholar of social justice law would collect works of art by an artist who was steadfastly committed to equality and equity. Benny Andrews represented and re-presented the African-American narrative, most notably through his signature mixed-media collages depicting domestic, economic, political, and social themes. Outside of the studio, Andrews fought on the frontline for the equal representation of black artists in the cultural scene. He co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which protested the disproportionate portrayals of black artists by cultural institutions, and created art education programs for marginalized urban youth and for individuals in juvenile detention centers. His work in prisons inspired a national model for youth art programs behind bars. In 1969, Andrews and six other artistic colleagues (Ken Bowman, Peter Dean, Michael Fauebach, Jay Milder, Peter Passuntino, and Nicholas Sperakis) formed Rhino Horn, an art collective that maintained figurative and politically themed art when abstraction and minimalism were trending in in galleries and museums. All of his activist and artistic accomplishments aptly led to his appointment as the Director of the National Endowment for The Arts (1982-84), where he oversaw a powerful platform that advocated for African-American artists who had been largely overlooked by mainstream art circles.

In Mix Master, we are presented with a diverse view of Andrews’ socio-cultural narratives and personal themes from his life as a modern artist. In addition to his expressionistic mixed media works –a combination of paint and found materials such as fabric and burlap– the exhibition features Andrews’ unique contour line drawings, which he created using pen and ink, and some color etchings that demonstrate his skills as an illustrator.

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Killing Jim Crow

Fury Young, Die Jim Crow, signed poster

Fury Young, Die Jim Crow, signed poster

Fury Young is a born and raised New Yorker. Growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was witness to the neighborhood’s many changes, which included a high wave of crime, drug addiction, conflicts with the police, and more recently luxury gentrification.

The latter development has been even more indicative of a great income inequality that plagues our city. One can stroll through the Lower East Side (or Williamsburg, Bushwick, Harlem, and many more neighborhoods), and see a great dichotomy of public housing complexes and luxury condominiums. This rigid division of upper and lower class citizens creates a rift in the quality of life. There’s typically a larger police presence in the areas with lower income housing, and these sections of town have a much higher rate of incarceration.

The United States of America incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. The fact is that most of these prisoners come from impoverished backgrounds and in segregated communities. A vast majority of these prisoners are doing time for non-violent crimes. This has led many of the leading sociologists, politicians, artists, and activists today to declare that the U.S. has been implementing a “New Jim Crow” in the shape of mass incarceration.

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Connecting Figures: New Humanism in Recent Figurative Painting

The formidable imagery of humanist painting has been troublesome to incorporate within the framework of today’s painting. In the 1960s and 70s when the art market was burgeoning for trendy “art of the day,” artists like those of the Rhino Horn group predicted the shape of things to come. In the group’s manifesto they stated:

“Realize when you see our work that the so-called “thirty years of painting and sculpture” in this country has been built on a lie; it has been packaged, promoted and super-sold by ambitious critics, dealers and curators trying to build their own reputation as they fatten their bankrolls.”

This quotation echoes in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent “Forever Now” exhibition, the museum’s first contemporary painting survey in three decades. MoMA is renowned for organizing groundbreaking painting survey’s such as Dorothy Canning Miller’s six contemporary exhibitions of American art, which introduced nearly one hundred American artists to the public. “Forever Now” was a far cry from the museum’s esteemed history of seminal contemporary painting surveys. The exhibition was loaded with (largely) derivative and abstract painting (albeit there were some gems in the show) by artists who are established art market favorites. There was very little work in the show that had an emotional impact, but rather an affirmation of the status quo. The influence of money makes the art world go round.

Humanism in the arts is an evolving concept and goes against the evolution of the status quo. Since the heyday of Rhino Horn, there have been monumental changes in technology which has pushed the way our culture communicates and functions to new extremes. The paintings in “Forever Now” felt as if they were driven by technological and material energy. Therefore, I have compiled a list (which is only the beginning and will be expanded) of contemporary painters who are swimming against the grain of technological impulses and art world trends. Their work is figurative and steeped in the human psyche and condition in times of crisis. In some cases their work explores absurd phenomena in our society, or questions the significance of life’s dualities. Sometimes it is meant to disturb, shock, and elicit a visceral response. Overall, they assert new meanings, add to the terminology, and interrogate the lineage of painting.

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Suggested Reading: Which Side Are You On? Stand up for Social Justice Edition

“Which side are you on, friend,
which side are you on?
Justice for Mike Brown is
justice for us all.”

These words turned into song by a ‘flash mob’ (‘Requiem for Mike Brown’) transformed the St. Luis Symphony into a somber but inspiring stage for social justice. A standing ovation for them and for all the freedom fighters across the nation. via: Youtube

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Images of Protest

The gathering of masses to protest issues that affected their generation was pertinent to the lifestyle and work Rhino Horn Group artists. Many of the artists in the group opposed the war and were Civil Rights advocates. They related their activism in their paintings. Decades later these issues still haven’t been solved and we’re still living in a time of social injustice, corruption, economic inequality, and war.

Sunday, October 21st, 2014 was the People’s Climate March. With over 300,000 attendees, it was the largest community gathering and protest around climate change in history. The next day (Monday, September 22nd, 2014) roughly 3,000 people assembled together to march on Wall Street (aptly named, Flood Wall Street) addressing a myriad of issues plaguing the national and international community that are still unsolved. The imagery and documentation from these marches (and the previous images of Occupy Wall Street) are enhanced by powerful posters, signs, costumes, and installations created by artist/activists.

The sentiment today echoes the sentiment felt by the members in the Rhino Horn Group. Below are several selections of protest imagery from work by artists in the Rhino Horn Group. Many of these paintings are from the late 1960s and early 70s at the height of the Vietnam War, however they’re just as relevant today as they were then.

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