There is the subtlety of fabric so integral to her internationally known story quilts, soft sculpture and masks. Finally there is the potency of her imagery, which simultaneously holds a mirror to American culture -- including the ugliness of racism and sexism -- while at the same time offering a message of hope and, appropriately, faith.
Opening Friday and continuing through April 4, the Faith Ringgold exhibit is a retrospective of sorts, spanning nearly four decades. Given the artist's prolific career, the exhibit does a reasonable job of conveying Ringgold's personal and broad-based exploration of the black experience in America, both rural and urban, historical and contemporary. Whatever gaps exist in portraying her artistic development are generally minor, although one wonders at the exclusion of the highly charged 1970s Black Light Series, with works like "Red/White/Black/Nigger." Also missing is the atypically watercolor-like imagery of Coming to Jones Road, a series about the Underground Railroad.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & R & lt;/span & inggold's story begins in 1961 with The American People Series. Characterized by flattened space and a Picasso-esque handling of the figure, this four-year series of oil paintings reflects the artist's interest in racial and gender politics against the backdrop of tumultuous times. "The In Crowd" shows faces of business-suited men stacked: brown-skinned on the bottom, whiter on top, their hands pressing down on the heads of or covering the mouths of their black counterparts.
This series is subtle by comparison to the subsequent Black Light Series, which confronts race and gender discrimination, including the unwillingness of the art world to recognize the contributions of women and, to use Ringgold's term, Afro-Americans. This series, which carries into the '70s, also prefaces the origins of Ringgold's stylistic transition into geometrically parsed shapes and the use of text.
In 1971, ARTnews asked, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Nine years later, Ringgold -- along with 19 other prominent (though still struggling) female artists -- was featured on the cover. Feminism becomes a common descriptor for Ringgold's work, including her soft-sculpture dolls and wearable masks.
Ringgold uses cloth as a structural and design element, inspired by Tibetan thangka scroll-paintings and the legacy of her great-great grandmother's quilt-making. The Slave Rape series is both a departure -- from the traditional wooden frame and flattened, stylized space -- and a return to earlier motifs, namely Ringgold's personal narrative set against the historical context of the black (female) experience.
An outgrowth of this period results in what would become the hallmark of Ringgold's repertoire: story quilts, the most famous of which is probably "Tar Beach" (1988), now housed in the Guggenheim Museum. As any East Coaster knows, a tar beach is an urban, rooftop escape, a frequent location of family dinner gatherings above brownstone residences. In Ringgold's rendition, two kids lay on a blanket staring at the distant George Washington Bridge twinkling in a starry night -- through which flies a young girl, a symbol of hope.
Although the original "Tar Beach" is not included in Jundt show, several story quilts of similar style are. "Subway Graffiti" and "Tar Beach #2" are indicative of Ringgold's illustrative, folk-genre style that prevails even into recent works, some of which include a new medium for Ringgold: printing. In fact, Ringgold continues to explore printmaking in her most recent series of paintings, Jazz Stories.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & R & lt;/span & inggold, who now lives in San Diego, has, by society's standards, achieved a considerable amount of success. She has received 15 honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees and the National Endowment for the Arts Award. Represented in both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, she has artistic clout. And she continues to write about and illustrate such important figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. Her most recent books are educational, featuring Cassie from Tar Beach in her adventures with words, counting and color.
What is most impressive, however, is Ringgold's spirit, strength and style. Throughout her career, she has tackled subject matter with compassion and, in the case of her more controversial content, unflinching candor. She leads by example, committing herself to vital causes: humanitarian relief, education, promoting African-American arts (through her Anyone Can Fly Foundation), addressing racial and gender inequality. She personifies the flying girl in "Tar Beach" -- soaring over problems but always willing to try new solutions.
This is exhibit is worth seeing ... with more than just your eyes.
The Faith Ringgold exhibition at Gonzaga's Jundt Art Museum, 202 E. Cataldo Ave., is open weekdays from 10 am-4 pm and Saturdays from noon-4 pm from Jan. 19-April 4. (Closed Feb. 17-19.) Artist reception and lecture: Feb. 22 at 7:30 pm. Video: Saturdays at noon. Free. Visit www.faithringgold.com or call (509) 323-6613.