THE JAZZY RHYTHMS of the streets come alive in the mixed-media paintings of Willie Bonner. Great swirls of red, of yellow, of blue and of black dance across his streetscapes, now on view at the Arizona Gallery at the UA Student Union. Painted on humble slabs of wood, the exuberant colors animate pictures of tenements, storefronts and chain link. There's one jungle scene, "You and Me," but even that foray into nature painting, a sort-of homage to Rousseau, gives off a hip-hop vibe. The grasses in the foreground have been scribbled in as wildly as a graffiti on a subway door, and among the picture's naively painted bright green leaves are tiny black-and-white photos of contemporary black and white Americans.
Bonner, an MFA graduate student at the UA who grew up in Cleveland, says he paints an "allegory of what it means to be black in post-modern America." His liberal use of black paint makes a pointed metaphor of its own, but the otherwise gleeful hues of his paintings can be deceptive. Despite their apparent light-heartedness, Bonner's works add up to a serious portrait of black America, and not just because an African-American face almost always looms front and center. Beneath the bright hues of hip-hop are the darker dimensions of black urban America--crumbling streetscapes, houses broken down by poverty, alleys littered with broken beer bottles.
The artist's deftly layered works mirror this split. Dark, brooding photos, glued directly onto the wood, break through the boisterous swathes of surface paint, their sadness piercing the paint's gaiety. Bonner uses his paints to alter the photos, leaving a full mouth floating rootless here, an eye staring here through the paint. These big eyes are silent sentinels, bearing witness, watching America watch them.
"The Hood," 1998, is one of the exhibition's best. A big work, 6 feet high by 4 feet wide, it's a paint, photo and chalk portrait of a downtown neighborhood. Set against a patch of blue-green, thickly painted, is a child's white-chalk drawing of the skyline, its office towers rising above the old black neighborhood. Down on the street a car drives by. A young black man presides over this scene. His cartoonish body is painted in the nighttime colors of traffic--red, yellow, brown--but most distinctive is his face. It's a real photo, in the dot and line pattern of newspapers. Bonner has covered most of it up with violent red paint, leaving a big mouth highlighted with a thin layer of yellow.
The artist isn't afraid to confront stereotypes about African-Americans, and throughout this series he defiantly plays up the exaggerated full lips and wiry hair and braids of racist imagery. No doubt about it, the kid in "The Hood" is mouthy. And the red paint makes him scary. But while he's the picture of aggression, the city itself aggressively leaves him out. The skyscrapers may be near enough to block the sunlight from this kid's mean streets, but the executive suites in its office towers are about as remote to him as the moon.
Sometimes Bonner's layerings allude to the centuries of history that shape contemporary black experience. What you see in modern life is not all you get. In "Black Looks," 1998, there's another big face--this one with the mouth cut out--and the usual Bonner assortment of bright swirling colors. At one corner, though, dimly seen through some thin fuchsia paint, is what looks like an old-time photo of street people camping out in an alleyway. Black poverty goes a long way back, and the street scene could easily be duplicated today.
Bonner, who got a BFA at the Cleveland Art Institute in 1979, has been a longtime art teacher and art therapist. His method and his materials--many of them not fine-art materials--make a good match for his themes. He's a fine colorist who clearly relishes diving into the paints, and he delights in varying his paint textures. Sometimes the paint's so thin it's transparent. Sometimes it's so thick it's pooled on the wood, as though it had been poured directly out of a can. Other times Bonner uses a wide housepaint brush to slather his colors onto the wood, leaving trails of untamed brushmarks behind.
Some of his best pieces are also the roughest. Four small, splintery works are made of fence pickets, complete with gaping cracks between the slats. More like sketches than finished works, these are loose constructions, painted with joyful abandon. "Osun" has a characteristic photo image of huge black lips, but Bonner has surrounded them with a kaleidoscope of abstract shapes in gleeful colors--medium and light blue, yellow, green, maroon.
Bonner is onto a new aesthetic here, and his least interesting pieces are assays at regular oil painting on canvas. A series of tiny nudes, male and female, are painted in classic art-school poses, but they seem burdened by the weight of the academic painting tradition. The little figures are cramped. Better and freer are the works that spring live from the debris of the city, the pictures gerrymandered out of wood and newspaper photos, out of house paint and chalk.
Willie Bonner: Recent Paintings continues through Thursday, October 15, at the Arizona Gallery on the second floor of the UA Student Union. Hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. For more information call 621-6142.