The new show at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, "Art of the Masters: A Survey of African American Images, 1980-2000," opens with a knockout piece by Yvonne E. Tucker. "Desert Goddess" is a squat, two-handled vessel that calls to mind Greek amphoras. Topping it is the stern face of a woman, in something like pharaonic head gear. She gazes out at the world with eyes both wise and skeptical — not a bad combination for these times.
"Art of the Masters" will hang through Feb. 28.
The Michigan Chapter of the National Conference of Artists, whose mission is to introduce African-American "master artists" to the wider world, organized the exhibit.
The rest of the show measures up to Tucker's example, and includes works by some of the 20th century's greatest black artists, including giants Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden.
The one Bearden work on display is a gorgeous abstract essay in blues and whites called "Caribbean Harbor." Playing next to it is a video profile of the artist that manages to be interesting and informative — and a little annoying when you're trying to take in the rest of the show.
Still, the comparisons the narrator, renowned trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, draws between Bearden's improvisation and jazz are well worth a listen.
"Bearden's art is warm and inviting," says Marsalis in an affectionate aside, "like you always feel at home."
In addition, don't miss the decorated funeral fan entitled "Our Dr. Betty Shabazz." The mixed-media piece honors the educator and activist — and widow of Malcolm X — who died in 1997 of injuries suffered in a fire set by her grandson in her New York City apartment.
The image on the heart-shaped fan looks to be Shabazz's high-school graduation picture. Around her smiling face, New Jersey artist Ben Jones has created an aura of gold, red and white squiggles and dots.
Sea shells create an outer circle beyond that. And rising from the fan's top, as if they're Shabazz's very spirit, are gold-tipped, three-dimensional spirals reaching heavenward.
Detroit artists are well represented. Distinctly worth a look is the black-and-white photograph of a disintegrating Packard Motor Car plant by Detroiter Hugh Grannum, "Art of Destruction."
A whimsical, cartoonish tone is struck by the late Robert Colescott with "Interiors #2: Homage to Roy Lichtenstein." In it, a woman in a pink bikini smokes a cigarette in an apartment that resembles
Lichtenstein's cartoon canvases — compelling and quite a hoot, and typical of Colescott's satirical take on racial and sexual imagery.
At Ann Arbor's Gallery Project, a 30-person group show called "Warp" will be up through Jan. 9, and features some well-known names — including 2009 Kresge Artists in Detroit fellows Cedric Tai and Susan Goethel Campbell.
"The show uses the weaving metaphor of warp — threads that go in opposite directions," says gallery co-director Rocco DePietro. "So things come together in unusual ways, almost at cross purposes."
'Art of the Masters: A Survey of African American Images, 1980-2000'
Through Feb. 28
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit
Call (313) 494-5800
Through Jan. 9 The Gallery Project 215 S. Fourth Ave.