Art Review: Faith Ringgold’s work good ‘example of content’

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114426618826749.jpg’, ‘Image provided by Susan Webb Tregay’, ‘Faith Ringgold’s work will be on display through April 14 at Rockford College Art Gallery in the Clark Arts Center, 5050 E. State St.’);

Rockford College has brought nationally renowned artist Faith Ringgold to its gallery for its “UnCommon Lives” program, celebrating extraordinary women in the arts.

March, the one month devoted to honoring half of the population, is women’s main chance to get recognized for their achievements, and Rockford College’s biennial program is a superb effort.

I first saw Faith Ringgold’s work in a huge solo exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y.’s premier art museum about 1980 (probably in March). Her art blew me away.

Working with fabrics, creating quilts and soft-sculpture figures, Ringgold took distinctly female crafts and developed a major museum exhibition. She bravely chose her art materials and techniques to reinforce her gender at a time when most women artists felt they had to hide theirs.

That she has succeeded as a woman artist (how I hate that term) is a small part of her achievement. Ringgold’s work is a pre-eminent example of content. Putting content in your art means expressing yourself, exposing your emotions and describing what makes you you. Content is the one element that defines art. Ringgold’s devotion to expressing herself, her race and her family’s story is how she has raised her craft to fine art.

If you are an artist, see this show. You will expose yourself to an emphatic lesson in content. It feels extremely difficult to get so personal with your art, but some of Ringgold’s story quilts are joyously jazz-oriented, while others are deep, difficult and edgy. Content can be expressed at all levels.

Ringgold’s quilts are built around a painted center panel. They all tell stories, some through their paintings, while others reinforce their stories in writing. She then “frames” the central panel with pieced borders. Many of her border fabrics are painted with floral patterns, others are high-contrast, bright commercial fabrics.

The earliest piece from 1972 is bordered in a few distinctly African pattern fabrics. These frame a woods scene that has wonderful Fauvish brushwork. The content in this piece is a quote by Harriet Tubman about liberty or death being her two options. Written into the piece vertically, the words have an Asian feel and meld nicely into the work, since they are not easily read. Later paintings in this series (interestingly, these were created decades later) move toward more realistic trees, but more graphic content. Black figures move among the trees—Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad and today’s black society on the move.

Ringgold’s current series explores and extols jazz. Raised in Harlem, its content probes her family’s recent history. These, called “Mama Can Sing” and “Papa Can Blow,” they feel personal. They have a deep, joyous and humorous level that, as artists, we can all learn from. Here, Ringgold’s musicians nod toward the collages of Romard Bierdan, and her vibrant backgrounds, with their simple, squiggly lines, remind us of Matisse. Outlined in blue, the faces play in the moody lighting of a jazz club, while her disregard for perspective allows us to laughingly watch the pianist’s hands.

The show includes paintings—simple, fluid ones—on black backgrounds, and serigraphs, prints based on her quilts. The former appears to be the way she “finds” the characters for her quilts. The prints are a quality way of creating multiples of her very labor-intensive first love, quilting.

This exhibition continues through April 14 at the Rockford College Art Gallery in the Clark Arts Center, 5050 E. State St. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday; 3-6 p.m., Thursday-Saturday. Admission is free. Call 226-4034 for more information.

Susan Webb Tregay is a Rockford artist, author and teacher. Her work and résumé can be found at her Web site,

From the April 5-11, 2006, issue

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