One semi-swooning white female icon, one high-heeled shoe, and a large jazz trumpet face off against seven or eight intense African-American male gazes.
Call it a stand-off.
That’s the fraught but fascinating scene you walk into with a visit to Katro Storm’s Pieces of a Man, a solo exhibition now on view at the new Gallery Howe, a new sun-filled gallery space that roving curator and artist Bill Saunders and friends have initiated in the community room of the newly renovated West Village Apartments at 52 Howe St.
Storm is known in town in part as the creator of murals promoting literacy through local heroes and health at the Stetson Branch Library. He brought his broad brush, rollers, and a message that art just might be a local change agent to Winchester Avenue and Starr Street and as the curator of various shows around town, including at the Arts Council. There at this time last year he helped solve the creative dilemma’s of Black History Month.
Storm’s new show, an unusual indoor solo effort on his part, consists of about a dozen works, mainly large scale portraits done in acrylic on canvas.
True to the show’s title, and in keeping with Black History Month’s vibe, Storm’s faces are primarily of men, all African-American, including baseball and musical greats like Jackie Robinson Jimi Hendrix, and Miles Davis, along with other faces presumably of regular, less recognizable folks. (Alas labels were absent when I visited.)
The music portraits are on the west wall of the wood-lined room. The baseball and Marilyn portraits on the east wall are, depending on the sunlight pouring in from the mullioned windows that surround them, a little hard to see.
Still, whether in shade or light, they’ve all got you in their field of vision, the gaze of Storm’s subjects’ eyes laser-ing in on the viewer through a palette of almost exclusively browns and blacks.
Except for the large profiled Miles Davis portrait (pictured). The trumpet seems to lean into the gallery, spewing the only bright color in the show, dabs of red and orange, like a synesthesiacal blast of musical notes, all those eyes are looking at you.
They make you feel uncomfortable, as if the gaze were saying, “What are you lookin’ at?!”
All of this feels quite right to me, in part because the gallery is sharing space with residents, who meander in and out of their now community room/art gallery. They are also watching TV on a big monitor in the only corner without art, and talking among themselves. This is no traditional gallery space. The talk is hushed and sometimes in whispers of urgency.
When I was there, residents—were they also viewers of the art?—were talking about meetings with caseworkers and issues pertaining to Section 8 housing; the newly renovated apartments are priced for low-income working people and those in transition.
The works on the wall, depending on where you happen to be in life, could be seen gazes of recognition, challenge, anomie, depression, anger, or lostness.
Resident Eric Aranjo was sitting at a window table near the Marilyn Monroe portrait and gazing both in and out. “I really enjoy it ,” he said of the exhibition. “I like all of them.”
Art New England writer and Independent contributor Stephen Kobasa expressed some reservation: “The scale [of the space] doesn’t serve Katro’s work.”
Click here for Kobasa’s recent review of Yale-trained artist Chuck Close. In size and eye-gripping intensity, if not in intention, Close’s portraits and Storm’s have more in common than, well, meets the eye.
With the light and high ceilings, Kobasa suggested, the Gallery Howe space might be more suitable for three-dimensional art.
That may be so for the occasional visitor.
Yet for those who live above and around this space or who talk to their caseworkers beneath a portrait of, say, Satchel Paige, Storm’s scale and choice of subjects may be just right. There’s comfort in recognizing their faces, still simmering or seducing even after death. Along with that there’s another humbling message: that the paths even of of those who achieve fame and glory do indeed lead to the same grave as those who pass through life unknown.
An additional, more immediate message come through from beyond: “You. Yeah, you! Time to get on with your life.”
The brochure for Gallery Howe calls this show and those to follow “a cooperative venture between neighborhood artists and the fine residents and management of West Village Apartments. The goal is simple: Bring art to the people, and let’s see what happens.”
So far, so good.