AN EXHIBITION OF THE WORKS OF GLADYS BARKER GRAUER
Barker Grauer is an artist of unique and prolific invention. Through her paintings, mixed media, assemblages and weaving, through her transformations of common materials such as paint, cardboard, rags, and plastic bags, she enables a broad and deep public appreciation of beauty, community and, yes, the unknown terrain of the human condition. She does so without apology, with sentimentality. She calls forth the new and old realities of the world. She sheds light on what might be possible still.
Born in Cincinnati in 1923, and relocated with her family to Chicago’s South Side, Gladys attended an all black elementary school. Her parents were enlightened, conversant with the major events and issues of the inter-war years. She remembers an expressive familial cultures: opinions over the kitchen table that ranged from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the crude treatment of African Americans during the 1930s and 1940s, and their quest for civil rights and a full measure of freedom. In that milieu of ideas and ideals, the young Gladys Barker discovered her love for art. She well remembers a local artist, Jay Jackson. He painted signs on movie kiosks in her neighborhood. Her family, she says, boasted of their friendship with this man…”a black man who did not have to clean for white people to make a living.” Jay Jackson was an artist who earned his living painting pictures of movie stars. He was one of the most respected members of the community.
Gladys, following in the indelible footsteps of Jay Jackson, also drew movie stars. She set her sights on a life as an artist. She attended the Arts Institute of Chicago, receiving a degree in fine art. There she met Elizer Cortor and Margaret Goss, both creative activists.
I recently visited Gladys at her Newark home. It also serves as her studio. She has lived there since 1957m which in historical terms places her there just on the eve of a great transformation in Newark that would make a city famous for some and infamous for other. Her late husband Solomon Grauer lived there, along with their four children. When I was there, the dining room table was covered with art supplies and new works in various stages of progress. That’s so typical, I think, of artists who have been creating as long as Gladys. She is a prolific weaver, so she drew my attention to on of her few works. “I’m going to add sculptured faces to this on, “ she said. Her hands those early twentieth century hands, moved over the work, directing my eyes though the textures the lines and the patterns. Gladys once told me that she could accept being blind but not losing the use of her hands, I know more about that revelation now since she has over the past few years battled against cancers, surviving the disease through with her art, her hands, could accomplish.
Gladys is outspoken, always. And so she is concerned with the human condition in what she says and when she creates visually. She is also concerned with community. In keeping with some of her generation, those who know something of the Great Depression, World War II, and the great struggles that ushered in contemporary American life, she is virtually without fear in coping with the issues of housing, homelessness, hunger, and inhumanity. These are matters of concern for many to be sure. For Gladys they become a part of her art. And yet she is free of despair, as her are is also filled with humor, love, hope and strength. For that reason, she has been a paragon of discipline ingenuity, and agency for more than a generation of artists of color in New Jersey.
In the early 1970s, Gladys opened the Aard Art Gallery. It was an era challenged by all but the most fervent champions of creativity in Newark. At that time, artists of color were represented in the community, but they were scarcely represented in the major arts avenues. Aard addressed the needs and aspirations of such artists. It did more: it helped launch the critical evaluation of black and brown artists. As an example, Eileen Watkins of the Star Ledger covered exhibitions mounted by the Aard Art Gallery, which helped set the stage for the appreciation of the creativity of artists of color. Those early, tentative steps led ultimately to The Newark Museum’s 1983 exhibition, Emerging and Established, which through the good offices of Eleta Caldwell and Fearn Thurlow pointed the way to the future of visual arts here and a higher standard of cultural literacy in New Jersey.
Much of Gladys’s art contends in some way with matters related to family. The Black Family, as an example employs gouache that is scrubbed and flushed from the surfaces of heavy watercolor paper. If one were passing by, it looks like a weaving which is a medium that Gladys uses most effectively. The figures appearing in The Black Family are compact, more like textile created on a loom than what one would expect painted by brush. This is an abstract work, yet figurative. Color and form construct a dense, tightly packed painterly surface. The mother, who is central to the composition, is larger than life; the family, surrounding her, envelopes her, but is, to be sure, a part of her presence.
Eleanor Bumpers, which has been previously exhibited, is alos an important part of this show. Many will remember the sad plight of Ms. Bumpers, an elderly woman who was killed in her New York apartment by officers of the New York Police Department. Gladys expresses her outrage against this official crime in an expressive hyper-surrealistic work. Much has been made of surrealism in the black arts movement. The great James A. Porter of Howard University argued the surrealism was a form that particularly appealed to African American artists. And so Eleanor Bumpers is prescient as the headlines of the morning’s newspaper; it is figurative iconography of a deeply troubling and unforgivable event. It re-conceptualizes the tragic news of Ms. Bumper’s death into what might be called an anthropocentric social realism.
Gladys incorporates her designs into fiber art such as rugs, sweaters, place mats and fantastical animals, the last of which she calls Crispy Critters. She works are functional. They are not meant to decorate, entertain or stereotype. Rather, they call our attention to reality as perceived by a perceptive and courageous artist, a woman for who process and form are the tools of expressing a unique aesthetic language.
This exhibition located in a space that memorializes one of the great world citizens of the last century, and the founding father of earlier twentieth century modernism in Newark, surveys the aesthetic language of Gladys Barker Grauer. Some forty works are presented that reveal a personal philosophy and lifelong commitment to artistic commitment to artistic commitment born of struggle.
For my part, this responsibility is an honor. The life, times and artistry of Gladys Barker Grauer is refreshingly innovative in process and form. At her age, now eight years, and with her showing no signs of slowing down, I suggest that we all take heed to what she has said and what we still have to hear and see from her.
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