We Came from There to Get Here

Joe Overstreet’s Art Across Frontiers

[Transcript of an illustrated talk by Graham Lock]

Figure 1. Paintings from the Joe Overstreet exhibition in Houston, 1972

Figure 1. Paintings from the Joe Overstreet exhibition in Houston, Texas, 1972. L-R: Mandala, 1970; We Came from There to Get Here, 1970; For Happiness, 1970. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston. Image may not be reproduced without permission from the Menil Collection.

These paintings [Figure 1] are from an exhibition of Joe Overstreet’s work in Houston in 1972. On the left is Mandala, on the right is For Happiness, and in the middle is We Came from There to Get Here. They’re among a number of paintings he made in the early 1970s, for which he took his canvases off the stretcher and off the wall, and instead suspended them on ropes, bringing to mind images of tents, teepees and the sails of slave ships.

Figure 2. Joe Overstreet, Purple Flight Pattern, 1971

Figure 2. Joe Overstreet, Purple Flight Pattern, 1971. Acrylic on shaped canvas with rope, 88" × 102". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges.

Figure 3. Joe Overstreet, Saint Expedite, 1971

Figure 3. Joe Overstreet, Saint Expedite, 1971. Acrylic on shaped canvas with rope, 119" × 136". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

Other examples include Purple Flight Pattern [Figure 2], Saint Expedite [Figure 3] and Power Flight. All of these paintings belong to a series he called Flight Patterns and which he has described as “nomadic art”. When I spoke to him in New York in 2003, Overstreet, who is of part African American and part Native American extraction, talked about these paintings as an attempt to bring together some of the strands of this heritage.

I was trying to create a reflection of what in my past I had felt had run parallel: Native Americans, African nomadic people, black people here who had no homes—there was a lot of homelessness in those years.
We had survived with our art by rolling it up and moving it all over. So I made this art you could hang any place. I felt like a nomad myself, with all the insensitivity in America. Most of the things in my past had been denied or rejected. They still are.[1]

So the paintings touch on issues like migration and diaspora, the journeys across land and sea made by Overstreet’s ancestors, and they employ forms and techniques drawn from that heritage.

Figure 4. Joe Overstreet, We Came from There to Get Here, 1970

Figure 4. Joe Overstreet, We Came from There to Get Here, 1970. Acrylic on canvas with rope, 57" x 58". [Detail from Figure 1.] The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston. Image may not be reproduced without permission from the Menil Collection.

If we look more closely at We Came from There to Get Here [Figure 4], we can see the painting is made from a number of canvas panels that Overstreet has sewn together, quilt-like, as if each panel represents a different aspect of past experience, a different piece of “there”, given artistic form and unity in the “here” of the painting. So the title implies not only a journey across geographical and temporal distances, but an aesthetic journey too, an ongoing creative process that reaches a resting place in the finished work, which is both within the Western art tradition—it’s a painting in an exhibition in a gallery—yet at the same time invokes its non-Western sources to take an exploratory flight beyond that tradition, up and away from the restrictions of its frames, stretchers and walls. Similarly, works such as Purple Flight Pattern and Saint Expedite can be seen as related to colour field painting, while also signifying on the term “colour” and the genre’s association with “pure” painting. For example, I think it’s likely that the red, green and black of Saint Expedite (and Power Flight) are intended to remind the viewer of those colours’ historical links with Pan-Africanism, as in the UNIA Pan-African flag; while the writer and curator Corrine Jennings, who’s also Overstreet’s wife, has intimated that Purple Flight Pattern alludes to New Orleans hoodoo beliefs, traceable back to West Africa, in which the colour purple is linked with various attributes, including the power of spiritual protection.[2]

Joe Overstreet’s work, then, while often abstract, also has social and cultural resonances which ally him to a tradition of black abstract painters, such as Hale Woodruff and Norman Lewis, who likewise bridge the presumed gap between the self-referential and the representational in their approach to art. Overstreet also eludes other defining frameworks of Western art discourse, refusing to be confined by a label such as “ethnic” or excluded by a label such as “mainstream”, and treating all artistic traditions as equally valid, whatever their origins. As he told me, “I think any culture has the right to stand in the same space as any other culture, whether it’s accepted in the West or not.”[3]

This is one way that art can cross frontiers and it’s a theme that Overstreet’s work has often addressed, sometimes by escaping the boundaries of the stretcher and the rectangle, sometimes by finding other routes to expressive freedom, but always willing to let different influences stand together in the space of his canvas. Overstreet has said he believes art is “about the development of the human spirit, the coming together of expression, cultures crossing”,[4] which perhaps explains why his syncretism is not a “style” choice, a static badge of individualism, but rather a dynamic—and continuously reinvented—process that allows him to represent the ongoing development of his own human spirit. As he said in 2003, “I’m finding my way, trying to express who I am as a human being, my experiences in the past. I’m not interested in finding myself, I’m interested in building myself.”[5]

This idea of building the self recalls his statement in the catalogue to his exhibition Facing the Door of No Return, which featured a series of paintings he made following a trip to Senegal in 1992. During that trip, he went to the island of Gorée, near Dakar, the site of an old prison in which thousands of slaves had been held, prior to their shipment across the Atlantic.

All along I have been reconstructing the past and struggling with the notion of being an African American and of being displaced. Since Gorée, more than ever, I have had to face human bondage, sacrifice, trade in human life, and my life as an African who was forced to leave and to be reconstructed.[6]

The visit to Gorée had a profound impact on Overstreet and I’ll return to this series of paintings later, but given that his work is not well known in the UK, I’d like first to look briefly at a wider span of his art, and its reconstructions of past episodes on the journey from there to here.

I should add that Overstreet says his work is based on feeling, on a process he calls “emotional recall”, in which a painting evokes, is shaped by, and remains true to the feelings that originally inspired it.

For me, [painting] is not intellectual, it’s emotional; I have to feel empathetic, akin to situations. I paint things that I think about and feel. Art is more than making something; it’s a personal way to speak about everything I can... feel.[7]

And,

What I paint has to reflect what I feel, it has to be an emotional recall . . . I want to be truthful to the way I truly felt.[8]

So when he talks of reconstructing the past, we should not expect a realist or documentary approach; rather, he prefers abstraction because, he says, it allows him the freedom to express his personal experience of, and, in particular, his emotional response to, whatever had moved him—be it the colours in a local park or the history of slavery.

Let me set the context with a few biographical details too. He was born in Conehatta, in rural Mississippi, in 1933, but in the 1940s his family led a peripatetic existence, moving six times in as many years, as his father travelled from job to job: Savannah, New York, Pasco, Portland (Oregon), Oakland, Berkeley. In the ’50s he studied art, opened a studio in San Francisco and worked as a merchant marine, sailing to ports in Asia and South America. In 1958 he relocated to New York, which remains his home, although he has continued to travel—to Africa, Europe, the Caribbean—as he explored his roots and researched the art that had seized his imagination, from the French Impressionists to Islamic architecture. Certain friendships have also proved very important; not only with artists such as Sargent Johnson and Willem de Kooning, but also with the writers Bob Kaufman and Ishmael Reed and with many jazz musicians, including Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean and Sun Ra. All have left their traces, directly or indirectly, on his art.

Overstreet, then, has travelled widely and is well acquainted with many aspects of cultures from around the world. Yet, as he has said: “I base my art on certain influences. African, African American, Native American. Then there are contemporary ideas I try to capture.”[9] So I’ll show a few examples of each of these influences, though I think it’s fair to say that, while they often co-exist in a painting, it’s the African American that sets the context for much of his work. Let’s begin with the “contemporary ideas” he tries to capture, by which I think he’s referring to his belief that artists have to face up to the social issues of their times. The most striking illustrations in his own work are probably the Civil Rights and Black Arts-related paintings he made in the early and mid-1960s.

Figure 5. Joe Overstreet, Birmingham Bombing, 1963

Figure 5. Joe Overstreet, Birmingham Bombing, 1963. Oil on canvas, 20" × 20". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

Birmingham Bombing [Figure 5] is one of two paintings Overstreet made in response to an appalling act of racial violence: the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which resulted in the deaths of four young girls. The painting’s lurid intensity reminds me a little of the German Expressionists, whose work Overstreet had been studying at the time, but when I asked if he had intended to imply a comparison with the Nazi atrocities of the 1930s, he demurred, saying the painting was his “emotional response” to the bombing. Certainly the canvas seems almost to scream out in horror, fury and anguish.

Figure 6. Joe Overstreet, Strange Fruit, 1964/65

Figure 6. Joe Overstreet, Strange Fruit, 1964/65. Oil on canvas, 46" × 40". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

This is Strange Fruit [Figure 6], from 1964-65, which was, in part, his reaction to the lynchings of the 1950s and 1960s and, in particular, to the murder of the three young Civil Rights workers, Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner, in Mississippi in 1964 (an event to which his 2003 Pearl River also alludes). But Overstreet has said that, on a more personal level, the painting was also a response to his listening, over a number of years, to Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching recording, ‘Strange Fruit’, and to his seeing, in a magazine, a photograph of a particularly notorious lynching, in which one of the victims had looked a little like his younger brother: "I felt the most ridiculous anger I’ve ever felt, seeing this innocent kid they had maimed and disfigured and the neck was stretched. That photograph, and the Billie Holiday song, was probably what brought the painting together for me."[10] Overstreet also told me that he had tried to convey all the hatred that goes into lynching by the tautness of the rope, and, as critic Ann Gibson has noted, the odd diagonal line the rope takes gives the painting an off-kilter axis, reinforcing the feeling of a world turned morally askew by this hatred.[11]

Figure 7. Joe Overstreet, The New Jemima, 1964

Figure 7. Joe Overstreet, The New Jemima, 1964. Acrylic on fabric over plywood construction, 102" × 61" × 17". The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester.

In a complete contrast of mood, this is The New Jemima [Figure 7], in which Overstreet gives a humorous spin to the old “mammy” stereotype of Aunt Jemima, the minstrel character (originally a white man in blackface) whose smiling visage had appeared on a popular brand of pancake mix since the late 19th century. Here, a radicalised Jemima gleefully shoots down those pancakes with a machine-gun. The giant box Overstreet constructed for her—the painting is on fabric that is stretched over a plywood frame—prefigures the shaped canvases that he made later in the 1960s.

Figure 8. Joe Overstreet, North Star, 1967

Figure 8. Joe Overstreet, North Star, 1967. Acrylic on shaped canvas, 94" × 84". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Danny Dawson.

North Star [Figure 8], for instance, shown here with the artist in attendance. The title alludes to the Underground Railroad and the work is in part a tribute to Harriet Tubman, whose favourite song, according to Overstreet, was ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’. Which would be appropriate, since the Drinking Gourd is another name for the constellation of the Big Dipper, which, of course, points to the North Star that, like Tubman herself, guided runaway slaves to freedom. Overstreet also has recourse to Native American art here, his geometrical markings perhaps reminiscent of Navajo sand painting and rug making, while the canvas’s escape from the rectangle and its pushing away from the wall can be seen as a step towards the suspended canvases of the later Flight Pattern series.

Figure 9. Joe Overstreet, Gay Head, 1985

Figure 9. Joe Overstreet, Gay Head, 1985. Acrylic on canvas with wood, 79" × 62". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

Perhaps his most overt homage to Native American culture is the Vineyard series of 1985, which references the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard and the Choctaw Indians from Conehatta, in rural Mississippi, where Overstreet was born. Gay Head [Figure 9] is named after a town on Martha’s Vineyard that was first settled by the Wampanoag, who still have a reservation there, although the town has since been renamed Aquinnah. The shaped canvas, stretched on crossed dowel supports, has been likened to both teepees and, perhaps more tenuously, to the African American shotgun houses of the Deep South, the origins of which have been traced back to West Africa.[12] Overstreet represents the brightly coloured clay cliffs from which Gay Head took its name by modifying the drip technique of Jackson Pollock (he poured paint onto plastic drop cloths, let it dry, then lifted it off and cut it into various shapes, which he collaged onto the canvas); a reminder that abstract expressionism is also a part of the aesthetic heritage on which, as a reconstructed American, he is free to draw. (Or, perhaps, a reminder of the claim that the early abstract expressionists were influenced by Native American art.)

Figure 10. Joe Overstreet, The Hoodoo, 1988

Figure 10. Joe Overstreet, The Hoodoo, 1988. Oil on canvas, 78" × 64". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Frank Stewart.

Turning to Overstreet’s uses of African art, The Hoodoo [Figure 10], from his 1988 Storyville series, about the birth of jazz in New Orleans, directly “quotes” several different traditions of West African art. The figure in red is Marie Laveau, known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, and Overstreet suggests the persistence of West African belief systems in the black culture of early 20th century New Orleans by figuring Laveau in the style of Fang sculpture (which he had previously referenced in his 1959 painting Menagerie), and by placing beside her images of a Congolese funerary mask and an Ashante fertility statue; while, hidden almost in plain view, the figure of the piano-playing Professor appears as a spindly yellow silhouette that, according to critic Thomas Piché, Jr, is “related to Dogon-style sculpture”.[13] All of which takes place within an overall, semi-figurative stylistic context that can perhaps be seen as a kind of black post-modern versioning of European fin de siècle Post-Impressionism; or, at least, as a reflection of Overstreet’s admiration for painters such as Van Gogh and Matisse.

The Professor—a title commonly accorded New Orleans pianists—is a recurring presence in the Storyville series and his resemblance to Dogon sculpture in this painting is perhaps an acknowledgement that the roots of jazz, like those of hoodoo and voodoo, can be traced back to West African sources. But jazz, as the African American manifestation of that music, is the major focus of the Storyville series and Overstreet wanted in particular to pay tribute to the brothel keepers and prostitutes who, he says, gave the music a home and, by nurturing it through its early years, “helped to preserve the culture”.[14]

Figure 11. Joe Overstreet, For Buddy Bolden, 1988

Figure 11. Joe Overstreet, For Buddy Bolden, 1988. Oil on canvas, 78" × 64". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Frank Stewart.

Several of the canvases either depict musicians or refer to well-known recordings, such as Louis Armstrong’s ‘St. James Infirmary’ (St. James Infirmary) or Clarence Williams’s ‘Royal Garden Blues’ (Garden Blues). For Buddy Bolden [Figure 11] salutes the legendary New Orleans cornetist who is regarded as the progenitor of jazz. As Overstreet has noted, “They say Buddy Bolden’s sound was so loud and clear he could be heard all over town when he played in Lincoln Park,”[15] and he signals the music’s power by imprinting it on the air, the notes floating overhead as if waiting to seed the future history of jazz. Overstreet had often used a trowel or a palette knife in preference to brushes, but for the Storyville series he used newspaper to apply paint to the canvas, a technique he adopted because he felt the resulting textures offered a visual equivalent to the distinctive timbres of early jazz.[16] This is a good example of how Overstreet reconstructs the past in his art, his emotional response to the music guiding not only his choice of subject but also the means he uses to represent it.

Figure 12. Joe Overstreet, Monk’s Kitchen, 2001

Figure 12. Joe Overstreet, Monk’s Kitchen, 2001. Oil on steel wire cloth, 36" × 37". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Anthony Barboza.

Jazz has often played an important role in Overstreet’s art, from 1957’s The Hawk, for Horace, a playful spoof of Cubism sparked, so he says, by the musicians calling him a square, to 2001’s Monk’s Kitchen [Figure 12], in which we see the shadowy outline of the great pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, sitting amidst an exuberant starburst of refracted colours and geometrical patterns—an apt analogy for a music that can often sound angular and dissonant yet is always boldly dynamic and coheres to its own inner logic. Such a painting could be seen as evidence of Overstreet effecting a special kind of cross-cultural exchange, between different art forms, though perhaps that is a topic for another day. However, there is no doubt that his art pays tribute to jazz and the journey it has taken, from the “there” of its birth in Storyville’s brothels to the “here” of its current global presence, crossing all frontiers on (and in) its way to becoming, as Overstreet has described it, African-America’s “greatest contribution to the world”.[17]

Figure 13. Joe Overstreet, Inner Chambers, 1991

Figure 13. Joe Overstreet, Inner Chambers, 1991. Oil with collage on canvas, 54" × 43". The Bynum-Costin Collection. Image courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

Moving on, and back to Africa, we see a different facet of African culture informing this painting, Inner Chambers [Figure 13], from the Tension series of the early 1990s. Overstreet again employs rope throughout, not for suspending the canvases, as in the Flight Pattern series, but as material that is collaged onto the surface and fraught with multiple associations. In Overstreet’s words, the series is “concerned with tension and the problem of stress and weight”, yet has “an underlying focus on the fragile threads that tie man to man and bind the material, intellectual and spiritual worlds”.[18] Inner Chambers exemplifies much of this and also points to the origins of his interest in rope—namely, his fascination with the ancient Egyptian Rope Stretchers, the Harpedonaptae, who played a crucial role in designing and building the pyramids. This is an interest that Overstreet shared with his father, a skilled stonemason (and a 33rd degree Freemason, the highest degree attainable), with whom he had worked as a young man and who had used rope as a measuring tool in his construction of roads and bridges. His father too was called Joe and the name is discernible to the centre-left of the painting, the coiled rope linking father and son in an image that also links architectural and family histories, the inner chambers of pyramid and heart.

Other paintings in the Tension series address other aspects of black history: Black Star Line, for instance, is named after the shipping company Marcus Garvey founded to take African Americans back to Africa; Galleons and Brigantines, says Corrine Jennings, refers to the “Spanish, Portuguese and English ships that were used in slaving”;[19] and in Golden Measure, Overstreet again aligns his art with earlier African uses of rope and the golden ratio. He says the ropes collaged onto many of the Tension canvases “are always a reference to the Egyptian Rope Stretchers”,[20] but I think, more generally, they also tie together a history that stretches from the pyramids to the slave ships to the contemporary American artist, reconstructing the past and building the self with the tools of his ancestors.

Figure 14. Joe Overstreet, Sound in Sight, 1991

Figure 14. Joe Overstreet, Sound in Sight, 1991. Oil on canvas collage, 54" × 43". The Mourtala Diop Collection. Image courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

In this context, Sound in Sight [Figure 14] looks, at first glance, like an anomaly, and I think the tranquil pastoral scene, with its tree, wind chime and verdant riverside, is intended to evoke an idyllic future, albeit this is a vision of the future with specific historical roots. The painting is a tribute to George Washington Carver, born into slavery in 1864, later a leading agricultural scientist, who promoted ecological and economic diversity so that Southern agriculture, and African American farmers in particular, might become less dependent on cotton. His views on the natural world impressed Overstreet as almost shaman-like, and Sound in Sight brings a visual allure to Carver’s hope for a future in which (to quote Piché) people will “respect the land” and “live in beauty”.[21] The wind chime, I guess, symbolises the harmony Carver envisioned between the natural and the man-made, its music glimpsed here but still unheard.

Although it looks to the future, Sound in Sight, like so many of Overstreet’s works, is imbued with historical and cultural references. Corrine Jennings, for instance, has noted that “the color and geometrical divisions of earth and river are inspired by the charts and samples of richly colored paint George Washington Carver made from natural rocks”; she further suggests the tree “functions also as a reference to African sculpture”, while the “fluttering, toneless wind chime implies the sweep of winds that cross continents”.[22] These allusions to Africa may appear tenuous if we consider Sound in Sight on its own, but in the context of the Tension series, or of Overstreet’s oeuvre as a whole, I think they become entirely plausible.

I’d like to finish with a brief look at the Facing the Door of No Return series from 1993, which I mentioned earlier. These canvases are certainly stirred by winds that cross continents, although they do differ in one important respect from the Tension series: Overstreet no longer employs rope-collages as a metaphor for the ties between past and present, but instead leaves partly visible the geometrical grids that lie beneath the paint he layers onto the canvas. (A relationship between “surface” and “depth” he would explore further, but very differently, in the Silver Screen and Meridian Fields series of the early 2000s.)

Figure 15. Joe Overstreet, Gorée, 1993

Figure 15. Joe Overstreet, Gorée, 1993. Oil on canvas, 120" × 144". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

Figure 16. Joe Overstreet, Baobab and Fish, 1993

Figure 16. Joe Overstreet, Baobab and Fish, 1993. Oil on canvas, 120" × 144". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

The Door of No Return itself, located in the slave prison on Gorée at the end of a long, dark corridor, is a narrow aperture, overlooking the ocean, through which slaves had stepped to embark on the Middle Passage, from which there was no return. Overstreet’s paintings reflect his feelings on coming face to face with the traces of this blood-stained history, as in Gorée [Figure 15]; although they’re often overlaid with other impressions too, with lyrical swathes of colours in which he conjures the sights, events and people he encountered on what was his first trip to Africa—as in Baobab and Fish [Figure 16], Dousou’s Field and Dance of the Lepers. In the words of critic Thomas McEvilley, beneath the paintings’ “sumptuous colorism” lurks “the dark secret of Euro-American history—the rape of Africa through slave trade, colonialism, imperialism”.[23] Overstreet, in his closing statement in the exhibition catalogue, puts it in more personal terms:

Our reality is that we have been violated through a passage of history that continues. With all the bitterness and anger that position remains unchanged; thus, the paintings represent the duality of pain and beauty. Undermining the pain brings forth the beauty of the land and the people and the potential happiness of an ultimate resolution; so in this way, the paintings represent hope and optimism.[24]

When I spoke to him about the paintings, I asked if he could say a little more about “the duality of pain and beauty”. How did the paintings represent this notion? His answer was that, for him, the beauty resided in the act of painting itself, in the process of making the painting by recalling the people and landscapes he had seen; whereas the pain was implicit in the dimensions of the canvases and in the geometrical underpinnings of the painting.

When I went to Gorée, I went to the slave house and I paced out the size of the rooms where people were kept; 30 or 40 people kept in a room 10 feet by 12 feet. I thought, oh my God! That got to me. I felt I could hear the moans and cries of those people.
When I came back to New York, I made ten very large paintings, 10 feet by 12 feet. So the pain was in the size—and in the geometry, the grid that’s hidden in the painting, that’s always there.[25]

I think this quote makes clear his reference to the size of the paintings, but his allusion to the hidden geometrical grid requires further explanation. Overstreet has always been fascinated by the geometry of form, the internal dynamics of a painting, and in the early 1970s his father-in-law Wilmer Jennings, himself a noted artist, introduced him to the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, which, along with its whirling squares and logarithmic spirals, Overstreet has used as a geometrical underlay in nearly all of his subsequent work (and which, incidentally, he continues to mark out on the canvas using rope or twine as a measuring tool).

Figure 17. The Fibonacci-based geometrical underlay for Exchange

Figure 17. The Fibonacci-based geometrical underlay for Exchange. From the video documentary Joe Overstreet, The Illustrious: Portrait of an Artist, by Jahn F. M. Overstreet (Oakland, CA: Video Museum, 1995).

Figure 18. Joe Overstreet working on Exchange

Figure 18. Joe Overstreet working on Exchange. From the video documentary Joe Overstreet, The Illustrious: Portrait of an Artist, by Jahn F. M. Overstreet (Oakland, CA: Video Museum, 1995).

Here, for example, at the top [Figure 17], is the Fibonacci-based grid he devised for Exchange, one of the paintings from the Facing the Door of No Return series; and beneath it [Figure 18], we see Overstreet working on the painting. I should perhaps explain that the Fibonacci sequence generates numbers by adding together the sum of the preceding two numbers in the sequence. So if you start with 1 and 1, this gives you 2 as the next number; then you add 1 and 2, so the next number is 3; then add 2 and 3, which gives you 5; then add 3 and 5 . . . and so on: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 etc, etc. These sequences can be translated into geometrical shapes, such as the whirling squares. If we look back at Figure 18, we see two small, light-coloured squares just above and to the right of centre. Let’s say they both measure 1 unit x 1 unit; this gives us the darker square to the right, which is 2 x 2; then, the near-white square above is 3 x 3, and the large, dark square to the left is 5 x 5, and so on, whirling around the initial starting point. Overstreet creates these blocks of colours and then adds further layers of paint over them, “improvising” on the underlying structure (much like the jazz musicians he has long admired), so each work is both precisely ordered and spontaneous.

Figure 19. Joe Overstreet, Exchange, 1993

Figure 19. Joe Overstreet, Exchange, 1993. Oil on canvas, 120" × 144". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

And here is the finished painting, Exchange [Figure 19], with its surface of “sumptuous colorism” and evocative shapes, which Overstreet has suggested include both cowrie shells, used as currency in some African societies, and human skulls, the skulls of his ancestors, which, he says, haunted his dreams for many months after his return from Gorée.

Figure 20. Joe Overstreet, Cross Currents, 1993

Figure 20. Joe Overstreet, Cross Currents, 1993. Oil on canvas, 120" × 144". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

What’s unusual about this series of paintings is that traces of the geometrical underlay are often left in view; pointedly so in Cross Currents [Figure 20], but also discernible, albeit less obvious, in several of the other paintings.

Figure 21. Joe Overstreet, Exit Dust, 1993

Figure 21. Joe Overstreet, Exit Dust, 1993. Oil on canvas, 120" × 144". Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Dan Dragan.

In Exit Dust [Figure 21], for example, we can just see the outline of the whirling squares and the arc of a spiral curving down to the bottom edge of the canvas, just left of centre, and then curling up again. So Overstreet’s remarks about pain suggest the geometrical grid, throughout this series, also functions as a spatial metaphor for the historical processes of slavery and exploitation; how their traces still lie just beneath the surface of everyday life and continue to shape, to obtrude into, Africa’s relations with Europe and America and vice versa.

There’s no time to analyse these paintings in further detail, so I’ll end by suggesting that, in the journey from there to here, displaced African to reconstructed American, the Door of No Return was a significant point of departure, and one of Overstreet’s achievements in these paintings is to bring that journey full circle. “There” and “here”, pain and beauty, come together in a richly syncretic art that is, as he says, essentially optimistic in its promise of “an ultimate resolution”. Underlying this promise is Overstreet’s belief in the universality of art, his conviction that art is (as McEvilley puts it) “a universal human reality” that attracts and affects us all.[26] Or, as he told me in 2003, “I believe in my heart that everything I’ve tried to do, I’ve tried to do it to help all human beings. That’s the universality I’m talking about.”[27] This credo has long guided his work and is the reason his art, as I hope I have shown, remains true to its origins and yet is an art that also soars, sails and swings across frontiers.

References

[1]. Interview with author, Kenkeleba House, New York City, October 2003

[2]. Personal correspondence, March 2011

[3]. Graham Lock, “Joe Overstreet: Light in Darkness,” in The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art, ed. Graham Lock and David Murray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 228

[4]. Quoted in Thomas McEvilley, “Joe Overstreet: Navigating the Seas of Tradition,” in Joe Overstreet: (Re)call & Response, ed. Thomas Piché Jr., exhibition catalogue (Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum of Art, 1996), 29

[5]. Lock, 230

[6]. Joe Overstreet, “Facing the Door of No Return,” in Joe Overstreet: Facing the Door of No Return: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue (New York: Kenkeleba House, 1993), n.p.

[7]. Quoted in Thomas Piché, Jr., "Joe Overstreet: (Re)call & Response", in Piché, 10

[8]. Interview with author, 2003

[9]. Quoted in Corrine Jennings, “A/Cross Currents: Synthesis in African American Abstract Painting", introduction to A/Cross Currents: Synthesis in African American Abstract Painting, exhibition catalogue (New York: Kenkeleba House, 1992), 10

[10]. Interview with author, Kenkeleba House, New York City, April 2004

[11]. Ann Gibson, “Strange Fruit: Texture and Text in the Work of Joe Overstreet,” in Joe Overstreet: Works from 1957 to 1993, ed. Peggy Lewis, exhibition catalogue (Trenton: New Jersey State Museum, 1996), 27

[12]. See Alison Weld, “Joe Overstreet: From the Figurative to the Abstract,” in Lewis, 19

[13]. Piché, 13

[14]. Lock, 223. See also Corrine Jennings, “Storyville Series,” introduction to Joe Overstreet: Storyville Series, exhibition catalogue (New York: Kenkeleba House, 1989), 5

[15]. Joe Overstreet, notes to “Catalogue of Exhibition,” in Joe Overstreet: Storyville Series, exhibition catalogue (New York: Kenkeleba House, 1989), 37

[16]. Lock, 245-46

[17]. Lock, 237

[18]. Quoted in Gibson, 38

[19]. Personal correspondence, March 2012

[20]. Personal correspondence, March 2011

[21]. Piché, 15

[22]. Jennings, “A/Cross Currents,” 11-12

[23]. McEvilley, 31

[24]. Overstreet, “Facing the Door of No Return,” n.p.

[25]. Interview with author, 2004

[26]. McEvilley, 26

[27]. Lock, 228

Bibliography

Ann Gibson, “Strange Fruit: Texture and Text in the Work of Joe Overstreet,” in Peggy Lewis, ed., Joe Overstreet: Works from 1957 to 1993, exhibition catalogue (Trenton: New Jersey State Museum, 1996), 27–40.

Corrine Jennings, “A/Cross Currents: Synthesis in African American Abstract Painting,” introduction to A/Cross Currents: Synthesis in African American Painting, exhibition catalogue (New York: Kenkeleba House, 1992), 5–14.

Corrine Jennings, “Storyville Series,” introduction to Joe Overstreet: Storyville Series, exhibition catalogue (New York: Kenkeleba House, 1989), 5.

Peggy Lewis, ed., Joe Overstreet: Works from 1957 to 1993, exhibition catalogue (Trenton: New Jersey State Museum, 1996).

Graham Lock, “Joe Overstreet: Light in Darkness,” in Graham Lock and David Murray, eds., The Hearing Eye: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Visual Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 219–52.

Thomas McEvilley, “Joe Overstreet: Navigating the Seas of Tradition,” in Thomas Piché Jr., Joe Overstreet: (Re)call & Response, exhibition catalogue (Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum of Art, 1996), 25–32.

Joe Overstreet, “Facing the Door of No Return,” in Joe Overstreet: Facing the Door of No Return: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue (New York: Kenkeleba House, 1993), unpaginated.

Joe Overstreet, notes to the “Catalogue of Exhibition,” in Joe Overstreet: Storyville Series, exhibition catalogue (New York: Kenkeleba House, 1989), 36-37.

Thomas Piché Jr., ed., Joe Overstreet: (Re)call & Response, exhibition catalogue (Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum of Art, 1996).

Thomas Piché Jr., “Joe Overstreet: (Re)call & Response,” in Piché, Joe Overstreet: (Re)call & Response, exhibition catalogue (Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum of Art, 1996), 9–19.

Alison Weld, “Joe Overstreet: From the Figurative to the Abstract,” in Peggy Lewis, Joe Overstreet: Works from 1957 to 1993, exhibition catalogue (Trenton: New Jersey State Museum, 1996), 9–22.


Freelance writer and Special Lecturer, Department of American & Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham. Email: grahamlock@jazzistic.plus.com.

This is the (slightly expanded and revised) transcript of a talk I gave at the Art Across Frontiers conference at Nottingham University in April 2011. However, in the hope that some people may wish to further explore Joe Overstreet’s work, I have added basic references and a brief bibliography. I would particularly like to thank Joe Overstreet for taking the time to talk to me about his work in 2003 and 2004, and Corrine Jennings for her invaluable help in providing images and information. I am also very grateful to Jack Collier, Jeff Eaman and David Murray for their comments on an earlier draft of the text; and to Celeste-Marie Bernier and Stephanie Lewthwaite for this opportunity to share with people these examples of Joe Overstreet’s extraordinary art.