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As the inaugural exhibition of the newly opened Ella West Gallery, Return to Parrish Street: A Dream Realized is a mighty and impressive achievement of founder Linda Shropshire's goal to create a welcoming fine-art space that celebrates diversity in the Durham community. The Ella West Gallery is located on historic Black Wall Street, the home of the successful African-American entrepreneurial business community that flourished on Parrish Street. Featuring work by North Carolina artists Clarence Heyward and Kennedi Carter (with work by North Carolina native James Ransome to arrive September 11), the exhibition ponders the relationship between dreams and destiny to posit the pursuit and presentation of agency and individual identity as a communal dream, a vulnerable action, and a shared effort.
Carter's photography exemplifies this notion of reality interacting with dreams. She makes the quotidian feel magical. Special. Divine. Untitled (2022) centers Carter as her father's hands hold an electric trimmer to her buzzed head and its power cord extends across the foreground. With light cascading across the profile of her face skin from an unseen window, my mind was flooded by historical haloed portraits whose iconography signifies holy figures. Untitled (Atlas and I) (2021) captures Carter standing in a corner against a warm wood wall, looking fixedly at the camera while holding her young son in her arms. Her body language reads as relaxed; her gaze is strong, yet vulnerable. Though Carter portrays daily tasks and everyday occurrences, her photographs–particularly her self-portraits–are ethereal. She imbues a sense of fantasy within documentary-esque photography reminiscent of beloved home videos. And, like an old VHS tape with a hint of fuzziness, the coarse grains of individual pixels emerge upon close inspection of multiple photographs, indicating the raw nature of their intimate vulnerability.
Where Carter immortalizes brief instances of genuine, vulnerable self-identity, Heyward positions his portraits as agents of questioning, asking how our perceptions frame the identity of ourselves and of others. The portrait artist's current work visually chroma keys – or "green screens"–his subjects. Chroma key technology is typically employed in film, allowing editors to superimpose images on green surfaces or subjects. Canvases with bright, opaque colored backgrounds (reminiscent of Amy Sherald's compositions) provide the space for the typical gaze to be effectively reversed. Rather than the viewer gazing upon the depicted subject, the individuals of four paintings arranged in a rectangular formation unitedly pointed their eyes at mine, interrogating the biased presumptions of contemporary Black experience the viewers perpetuate. In rendering the skin of his portrait subjects in shades of green, Heyward encourages us to scrutinize our tendency to superimpose our perceptions over others' true identities.
Heyward's ingenuity operates heavily within the metaphor of this series, but two samples of his earlier black and white portrait drawings are striking because of the provocative emotional content communicated through immense detail in graphite. Portrait, George Stinney (2018) is a haunting representation of fourteen-year-old George Stinney, Jr., the youngest individual to be executed by electric chair after being convicted of the murder of two girls in South Carolina in 1944. Despite Stinney's eventual exoneration in 2014, Heyward's portrait of the young boy's heartbreakingly somber adolescent face and striped shirt is harrowing. Understood as part solemn memorial and part outright opposition to injustice, the work is simultaneously intolerable to behold and impossible to avert.
Return to Parrish Street: A Dream Realized is dedicated to the late Ernie Barnes, a Durham native, acclaimed artist, and best friend to Shropshire's middle school art teacher. With two signed lithograph prints from Shropshire's personal collection and a written account of Barnes' connection to Durham, the dedication offers touching allegiance to the legacy of the city's artistic history. Public art on display in the Black Wall Street Gardens across the street from the Ella West Gallery further commemorates the community's enduring impact. I suggest a stroll through the gardens before or after your visit, for such intentional insertion of the arts in this location preserves Black Wall Street's heritage.
Without question, Shropshire is proud of this inaugural show for the Ella West Gallery. Noting Carter's age of only twenty-four years and citing her resume of exhibitions and work in editorial photography (she photographed Beyoncé for British Vogue!), Shropshire called her a "prodigy" and suggested Carter could be the next Gordon Parks. Shropshire values explanations of art in the artist's own words; therefore, the gallerist has begun an archive of short videos featuring each exhibiting artist's present artistic influence, purpose, and practice.
As indicated in its introductory text, Return to Parrish Street: A Dream Realized "probe[s] perception, identity, and vulnerability." The exhibition underscores the potential of dreams to be actualized when shared with others and then pursued by a community in collaboration. This exploration of where dreams intersect with reality imparts an extraordinary inaugural message for the Ella West Gallery: our capacity for advancing dreams of change into veritable change grows exponentially when we come together.
Return to Parrish Street: A Dream Realized is on view at the Ella West Gallery through October 21 (work by Ransome arrives September 11). Check the gallery's Instagram (@ellawestgallery) for upcoming events, including an Artist Talk with Ransome on September 9 at 5:00 pm. For more details on this exhibition and to read the preview, please view the sidebar.