American Verses

The yearlong exhibition features seminal works by contemporary Black American artists.

by Bill Conger, Peoria Riverfront Museum
Left to right: Terry Adkins, Kerry James Marshall and Mark Bradford
Left to right: Terry Adkins, Kerry James Marshall and Mark Bradford

A poetic confluence of artistic creation and the bold expression of racial identity and belonging are the thematic undercurrents in Peoria Riverfront Museum’s latest exhibition, American Verses: Terry Adkins, Mark Bradford & Kerry James Marshall, which spotlights the work of the world’s leading Black contemporary male artists.

In May of last year, the Peoria Riverfront Museum and Art Bridges partnered to bring an exhibition to Peoria. Art Bridges is a foundation affiliated with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, that works with regional museums to expand access to important works of art and artists. American Verses was to feature a small selection of works by three of the most important contemporary Black male artists in America: Terry Adkins, Mark Bradford and Kerry James Marshall. 

Three days after our submission, however, the news of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent mayhem in Minneapolis sent shockwaves through our COVID-weary world. 

There are times when exhibitions take on a life of their own—and in this instance, our timing was eerily critical. The three artists in our exhibition were chosen in response to the use of literary references that inform their painting and sculpture. Their works, in proximity to one another, elicit timely and insightful perspectives of the African American male experience. These artists have used pre-existing works of literature as a point of reference for their works and profoundly invite deeper conversations.

Adkins' “Native Son (Circus)” examines the volatility of the African-American male positioned in desperately impoverished environments.
Adkins' “Native Son (Circus)” examines the volatility of the African-American male positioned in desperately impoverished environments.

Native Son (Circus)

Sculptor and sound artist Terry Adkins’ work entitled “Native Son (Circus)” loosely references Richard Wright’s controversial 1940 novel Native Son, which examines the volatility of the African American man positioned in desperately impoverished environments. Consisting of 40 mechanized percussion cymbals, Adkins’ sculpture sits unassumingly near to the surface of the floor while producing a percussive disturbance within its environment. 

Now deceased, Adkins came to fame by way of nearby Illinois State University as a printmaking student in 1970s. As a seductive visual encounter and an auditory agitation, the relentless, arbitrary rhythms of “Native Son (Circus)” incite questions about endurance, interruption and causality.

Bradford’s massive collage on canvas, “Thelxiepeia,” is named for one of the storied sirens from Greek mythology.
Bradford’s massive collage on canvas, “Thelxiepeia,” is named for one of the storied sirens from Greek mythology. 

Thelxiepeia

Current art world superstar Mark Bradford’s massive collage on canvas, “Thelxiepeia,” is named after one of the Greek mythological sirens whose voice seduced lost sailors into a rocky oblivion in Homer’s Odyssey. As hypnotic as ocean waves, the surface of the painting is comprised of hundreds of blackened endpapers used to Jheri curl hair. 

By employing materials from his past as a stylist in his mother’s beauty shop, Bradford has mythologized his own history. Just four years ago, this work was exhibited in the most prestigious biennial exhibition, the Venice Biennale, when Bradford was chosen to represent America in the exhibition’s U.S. Pavilion.

Marshall’s “Our Town” painting is represented by six preparatory sketches as well as a provided video.
Marshall’s “Our Town” painting is represented by six preparatory sketches as well as a provided video. 

Our Town

Kerry James Marshall’s painting “Our Town” takes its title from Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play and is represented in this exhibition by six preparatory sketches, exhibited two at a time throughout the duration of a year. Within the setting of an idyllic, 1950s American townscape, the painting appropriates and refocuses Wilder’s wartime play centered around an “average” American family. Marshall’s work embeds a Black family as the main characters and commandeers the concept of the play into a utopia despite the persistent underlying systemic forces which have plagued racial identity in America. 

Of the many connections between these artists’ language, it may be said that they and their work both share a struggle to define space through the unsettling of it. The deployment of the literary structures of novel, play and myth intensify the experience through crucial examination of historic representation and cultural division. As our current time continues to demand oxygen for these topics, these artists collectively bring the viewer into narratives that are informed by their own collective and individual pasts while beckoning a united future. PM

Bill Conger is chief curator at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. “American Verses: Terry Adkins, Mark Bradford & Kerry James Marshall” is on display at Peoria Riverfront Museum through March 2022. For hours and information, visit peoriariverfrontmuseum.org.

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