Around Town: Black History at Zenith Gallery

by Evan Berkowitz

New show at Shepherd Park home gallery celebrates Black History Month with works from living artists

By Evan J. Berkowitz

Karen Starika, "Flemish Bons #5" (detail), digitally manipulated photograph. Via Zenith Gallery.

Karen Starika, “Flemish Bons #5” (detail), digitally manipulated photograph. Via Zenith Gallery.

Every corner of the great Margery Goldberg’s Shepherd Park home, which doubles as the current iteration of her decades-old Zenith Gallery, is decorated with art.

From the veritable sculpture garden that beckons visitors in from her treelined residential street to the cleverly self-conscious food-themed works in the kitchen, each surface is covered, each wall occupied and each artwork — with few notable exceptions — remarkable. The house is chock-full of eclectica, most of beautiful and much of it extremely prescient.

And, of course, it’s all for sale.

The latest Zenith show, From History to Dream, surveys a medium- and region-diverse group of artists celebrating Black History Month with unique narrative ability, artistic prowess and even social clairvoyance. The show opened Feb. 5 with two days of meet-the-artists receptions and a soundtrack of reggae, hip hop and soul — the very tones of a cultural history.

Cassandra Gillens, "Treating Myself," acrylic on canvas. Via Zenith Gallery.

Cassandra Gillens, “Treating Myself,” acrylic on canvas. Via Zenith Gallery.

Cassandra M. Gillens’s work ($900–$6,000) transports the old Caribbean trope of painting African people in deep black silhouette to the abundantly colorful, palpably humid American South. Such an artistic choice requires tremendous color EQ, deliberate, precise brushwork and even carefully chosen subject matter. On all three counts, Gillens shines.

Her choice to use such a common style may be derivative, but her ability to capture the sights and sounds of the South — from a seething Seaboard Air Line locomotive to a steaming pile of scarlet crab on newspaper — rescues the works’ originality. The figures’ uniformly upturned heads suggest defiance as well.

Curtis Woody’s “We Hold These Truths” is a mixed media quilt featuring a square American flag inlaid with photos of African-Americans throughout U.S. history — from slavery through to Freedmen’s Bureau schools and beyond.

“The beauty of mixed media art is the flexibility it offers,” Woody says in a Zenith Gallery news release. “I juxtapose these visual elements into a language of moods and reactions that allow for the viewers’ own interpretations.”

His work ($1,500–$1,800) traverses history with a distinctly modern graphic flourish.

Doba Afolabi’s piles of paint ($1,350–$4,800) are either transcendent or passé. This critic can’t quite tell.

Some works by the Nigerian-born artist are extraordinary: “Reincarnation” uses a Nefertiti-like Egyptian figure to create haunting interplay with a modern, black female figure.

Doba Afolabi, "Reincarnation," acrylic on canvas. Via Zenith Gallery.

Doba Afolabi, “Reincarnation,” acrylic on canvas. Via Zenith Gallery.

Afolabi may not list Edvard Munch among his influences in the news release, but the shadowy forms he uses in “Reincarnation” and “(Our) Girls Shall Read” owe much more to the Expressionists and Fauves than to the Impressionists Afolabi does list. “Fire Dance” is practically Munch incarnate, albeit with a radically different attitude toward paint.

Works by the well-known Robert Freeman ($800–$11,800) dominate the downstairs and are lovely as always, using quick, animated daubs of paint to communicate movement, flourish and life.

Karen Starika’s manipulated photographs ($450–$800) are iffy. “Flemish Bons #5” and “Richardsonian #2” are lovely, but “Richardsonian #5” and “Deco” just miss the mark. Her work with trees is an acquired taste, but can be striking, as in “Trees #2 Winter.”

The most fluctuating artist in the show is Francesca Britton (works $350–$3,600). Her non-portrait works — with “City in the Clouds,” a cacophony of color amid billowing light grey, the best among them — are lovely, as are her dueling abstractions of “Heat…” and “South by Southwest….”

Francesca Britton, "City in the Clouds," mixed media on canvas. Via Zenith Gallery.

Francesca Britton, “City in the Clouds,” mixed media on canvas. Via Zenith Gallery.

Yet some of her portrait work, namely “Girl in White T-Shirt,” shows extreme difficulty capturing depth of face, torso, legs and the flowing, white titular garment, even with strong, obvious contouring.

Conversely, “Waiting in My Fur” and “Girl in Yellow Dress” showcase myriad painterly skills, in color, depth and ability to soften lines. The inconsistency is jarring.

Landscapes by Mason Archie ($5,500–$7,600) are lovely and happily pensive.

Work by Richard Fitzhugh ($750–$2,000) has even more success capturing D.C.’s tranquil places and its not-so-tranquil ones. Lovely watercolors of Rock Creek Park are abundantly verdant, while an urban scene of Seventh and G Streets Northwest is ablaze with an all-too-artificial light.

Similarly ablaze is the sparkling “Engungun Masquerade” by Gloria Kirk (works $1,800–$4,500) an enormous fabric work layered with beads, threads and cascading beauty.

Also on view is Christopher Malone, whose spectacularly odd figurines ($1,200–$8,000) run the gamut from worship idols to children’s dolls — all while interpreting solidly African personages through intricate handmade garments, well-formed expressions and startlingly conspicuous genitalia.

The dolls do not themselves evince the theme of history that underpins the show, but Malone may have stumbled on a fantastic way to explain it.

“From the beginning of recorded time, all over the world, people have been making dolls,” Malone says in the news release. “Dolls have been children’s play things and have also been used to bridge the gap between our physical world and the spiritual realm.”

“Like most traditions,” he says, “there’s so much more to the story once you dig a little deeper.”


From History to Dream runs at Zenith Gallery, located at 1429 Iris St. NW, through March 5. All prices presented are accurate as of Feb. 5.

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