Lev Mills: Artistic Journey, at Mason Murer through May 3, is an extraordinary survey of half a century of work by one of Atlanta’s most distinguished African American artists. Adroitly curated by Richard Bailey, it is the type of show that could be turned into a traveling scholarly exhibition with a few small but significant modifications—about which, more later.
It is a relatively short distance geographically, but an enormous one socially, from the Florida hometown of Wakulla that Mills portrayed in Abandoned (a 1960 watercolor from his sophomore year in college) to Atlanta and his 1989 site piece Pinnacle Chamber in City Hall. It is farther still to Madison, Wisconsin, and London, England, where Mills studied at the University of Wisconsin and the Slade School of Fine Art, respectively.
The 1960 watercolor, a linocut of a woman and child, and a 1962 plaster self-portrait give us Mills as an already accomplished undergraduate at Tallahassee’s Florida A&M University, exploring styles associated with the most distinguished African American artists of the day. The Trip, a perceptive 1968 collagraph of two young women travelers in the doorway of a hotel, provides a glimpse of the development of his style during the years of MA and MFA work at University of Wisconsin in successive summers between the responsibilities of high-school teaching in Tallahassee.
However, it was the combination of a unique period of social upheaval with the opportunity for postgraduate study at London’s Slade School of Fine Art that launched Mills’ career as an internationally recognized artist, and a large percentage of the work at Mason Murer dates from those pivotal years of 1971–72. It was then that Mills created most of the prints that would be acquired by the Tate and the Victoria and Albert museums, exhibited in galleries in London and New York, and toured throughout Africa by the United States Information Service.
The sheer variety of vigorous aesthetic and political qualities of these lithographs, etchings, serigraphs and intaglios defy brief analysis. Given the degree to which they reflect Mills’ innovative spirit and meticulous attention to process, they need to be looked at thoughtfully, and preferably with a bit of background in the histories of Angela Davis (Angelas Are Few), LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka, but here addressed in a querying title as LeRoi?) and George Jackson to supplement the more familiar trajectory of Martin Luther King Jr. in Out-Loud Silent, a work from the Wisconsin years. Taken together with later homages to Malcolm X and explorations of popular culture, they present significant moments in cultural history as well as in the evolution of Mills as an artist.
Also significant from this flabbergastingly productive time frame is I Do, a 1971 collaboration with Sierra Leone poet Mukhtarr Mustapha, who created poems to accompany Mills’ prints in a book designed by both men — a portfolio eventually acquired by the British Museum, the National Library of Scotland, the High Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.
Though the stainless steel sculpture Malcolm was made in 1975, only three or four years later, its abstracted symbolism seems to come from another imaginative universe, the one from which would spring some of the visionary technological allegory of Mills’ collaborative piece (with Charnelle Holloway) Ascension in the Millennium, for Concourse E of the Atlanta airport. Viewing these works in conjunction with the studiously multicultural if not polycultural imagery of the 2003–2004 mosaic Visions of the Future, created for the Board of Education building on Trinity Avenue, it’s easy to see why the scholar and artist Richard Powell’s wall text links Mills to the Afrofuturist movement — a concept still distinctly in productive flux, as a recent exhibition indicates.
That designation, however, doesn’t do full justice to Mills’ self-definition as an artist unconcerned with any specific movement, however much his work fits into this or that larger context. For him, the viewer-artwork encounter occurs prior to any considerations of art history.
On the other hand, these works are so bound up with the history of the larger culture that the only pieces that don’t require some small amount of annotation are the colorful abstractions such as the 1981 serigraph Prelude and the spectacular mixed media painting Protrusion, a wall-filling piece in which the stainless steel sculptural element literally protrudes into the room. Mills has become so well known for this type of eye-popping color that his immense body of work in other styles and palettes has been too often overlooked — until now. Perhaps the reference to a still relevant but increasingly distant phase of American history has become an obstacle, as the immediate aesthetic impact remains but the meaning of the imagery requires explanatory wall text.
Some of the needed annotation appears here, some of it doesn’t. This suits Mills’ wishes, but it makes it difficult to piece together the full range of his accomplishment. Framed posters and brochures allow us to catch glimpses of a nattily attired Mills (in a suede vest he designed himself) as un artiste americain in a show in Abidjan, or of one of his prints at a gallery in London’s Covent Garden. The studies and photographic documentation of his public-art pieces add to a nuanced picture of an artist whom some viewers know more for his many years as a professor at Spelman College than for his extensive oeuvre.
But in spite of the comprehensive quality of the selection of work, the arc of his career is difficult to follow without recourse to Joyce White Mills’ 2010 biography and catalogue raisonné from Mills’ own Cut-Chain Press. That book, apparently, is hard to come by. Apart from that issue, more appropriately addressed in a museum context than in a commercial gallery (most of the editioned prints in this show are for sale), this show is museum quality.
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