Johnny Coleman, Installation Artist and Sculptor

2003 cleveland arts prize for Visual Arts

Objects, in Johnny Coleman's worldview, are fraught with meaning. Especially objects he has thoughtfully assembled, or evoked, or fabricated within an enclosed space. They seem to him to tell a story, often one whose themes are drawn from his own African-American heritage. Colemans narratives are spun by old shovel handles, worn oak chairs, a cluster of silk ties-as we contemplate them in the haunting arrangements he likes to call “landscapes of the mind.”

His walk-through compositions often have a sound component, such as voices reminiscing. Sometimes, there are fragrances, such as the scent of drying field corn, flowers or straw. Coleman sees memory as “a tactile force.”

In Steal Away, a free-standing sculpture displayed in the David Zapf Gallery in San Diego in 2000, viewers came upon an old cracked leather chair that held a heap of raw cotton and a giant oar fashioned from a tapered wooden board used to skin animals in the ante-bellum South.

Nearby, Stories Not Yet Spoken, an installation inspired by Coleman’s childhood memories of looking out the bedroom window of his family’s home in Redlands, California, on orange groves that stretched for 34 miles, included an orange-picker’s bag placed near a beehive box, its cover weighted down by a lead catfish. Taped sounds of traffic and wind in trees betrayed no evidence of human presence, but life stories “emerge and persist,” wrote Leah Ollman in Art in America, “undeniable as the nail holes and blood stains on a skinning board.”

Ruminations (1992), incorporating charred wood and the sounds of breaking glass, was Coleman’s personal response to the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed. Song to Ayo (1997) was both an hommage to his father and a hymn to his one-year-old son. Mounted at the Firelands Association for the Visual Arts in Oberlin, Ohio, the installation was composed of a small orange tree in a rusty tub, kitchen chairs, a portable radio, electric sheers and a bunch of colorful silk ties, along with the sounds of a porch rocker, crickets and disembodied voice. “Coleman's exploration of universal themes such as love, sacrifice and loss,” Dialogue magazine wrote, “make this a passionate tribute to fathers and sons.”

A prolific and driven painter from youth, Coleman worked for nine years for a drugstore chain before finally enrolling at the Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles at the continued urging of family and friends. An instructor suggested to Coleman that he consider doing room-size installations, since his canvases typically referred to the sounds, the temperature, the feeling of a particular place.

Another of his Otis mentors, Ulysses Jenkins, introduced Coleman to David Hammons, an important figure in the Black Arts Movement in L.A. during the 1970s, who was creating installations with found materials and cultural references that were politically charged examinations of the collision of American culture and African-American culture. Colemanwas also deeply influenced by the installations of a white L.A. artist named Edward Kienholz,whose work was “unapologetically narrative, elegantly composed and unabashedly poetic.” The possibilities were exhilarating, he says, as was his discovery of a vibrant African-American art scene in L.A. and around the nation.

Today Coleman, who holds a B.F.A. from Otis (1989) and M.F.A. from the University of California at San Diego (1992), is an associate professor at Oberlin College, teaching both studio art and African-American studies. His work first drew local attention when his contribution to the 1996 invitational group show, Urban Evidence: Contemporary Artists Reveal Cleveland, was displayed at SPACES Gallery. The Plain Dealer called this evocation of the black migration to the North, which included the taped memories of migrant blacks, “a knockout.”

His most ambitious series of installations to date was inspired by novelist Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In 1998 Morrison, who had seen some of Coleman’s sculpture, commissioned the artist to create a piece in response to her novel, which Coleman had read and was enthralled by. “It’s a painful, dark book,” he says, “but for me the interior core is about the force of love.” The result was a pair of wall sculptures, He Tasted Iron and She Saw No Hardness in His Eyes (referring to Paul D, the slave who has a horse's bit put in his mouth) and Her Scars (about Sethe, who loves him), which now hang in Morrison's home.

The novel continued to fascinate Coleman, leading to a powerful trilogy of sound installations dedicated to his young daughter. A Landscape Convinced: For Nyima, mounted at the Akron Art Museum in 2001, used two tons of river rock to recreate the stark scene of the birth, in a sinking boat on the Ohio River, of a child of fleeing slaves, who becomes the matriarch of a new family born in freedom. Rememory: A Response to Beloved, for Nyima (2001), was a “prayer to the ancestors” that filled 11,000 square feet of space at Oberlin’s Here Here Gallery in downtown Cleveland. It incorporated 100 feet of standing corn stalks, a seven-foot hand-constructed boat and actual beams from old barns from the area near Oberlin that had once helped slaves fleeing north to Canada. 

The third installation, Song of a Landscape (2002), shown at the William Cannon Art Center in Carlsbad, California, was the most intimate of the three, a poem to Nyima that included the taped sounds of frogs singing near the Colemans’ house and father and daughter singing the Coltrane tune for which she was named.

Like much of Johnny Coleman’s work, these are “healing” landscapesabout loss and pain and transition; but also, as Margo Crutchfield, senior curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, has observed, about resilience and hope and possibility.

—Dennis Dooley

Cleveland Arts Prize
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