Seeing the truth

In her new location at 4201 Cass in the Cultural Center, longtime gallery owner Dell Pryor presents “Visual Essence,” featuring Chuck Stewart, Hugh Grannum, Adger W. Cowans, Karen Sanders and Emerson Matabele, five African-American photographers.

Stewart and Grannum are represented by works picturing jazz musicians. Jazz and black-and-white photography are Siamese-twin art forms joined at the hip. Some of the most engaging examples of each genre result from the seeming catch-as-catch-can nature of the improvisational essence of each. Images of the deep, black netherworlds of nightclubs and near-dark recording studios with their murky shadows, muted highlights and gray cigarette smoke curling like vapor off hell’s boiler reflect modern jazz’s more quixotic notions.

Stewart is less concerned with capturing the flux and sweat of performance than with revealing the dignity, in Yousuf Karsh-like clarity, of the musicians’ individualities as they contemplate prior to performance, or reflect listening to playbacks of what they’ve just created. Eric Dolphy (pictured) in profile with his serpentine bass clarinet, Duke Ellington in a Tyrolean hat and rehearsal game face, and John and Alice Coltrane seated together on a piano bench at the Van Gelder studio in 1966 are quietly dramatic images of pensive reflection.

Grannum’s jazz images of Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk encapsulate them in an echoing, two-dimensional fluidity that acclaims their music as mirrored by their personalities. His image of Josephine Baker seated with unladylike crossed legs, medallion and fur hat lords it over all who observe her. His non-jazz photos of the pigeon-filled roof of an abandoned house and of a man hauling fuel oil in a wagon resound with the intensity and starkness of urban blues.

The strength of Karen Sanders’ images demands the engagement of the viewer’s attention until conventional reactions scale away and deeper possibilities rise to the level of conscious consideration. Rather than concerning herself with statements about the reality of the moment, Sanders challenges conceptions and perceptions regarding gender, race and religion. Particularly provoking is her large, color-photo collage of a fish, encrusted with spikes and hung by its middle from a metal ring and chain. Thoughts of lynching and crucifixion are but two of the possibilities suggested.

Adger W. Cowans has portrayed himself “as practicing with his eyes as a musician does with his instrument.” He favors a fine-arts painterly approach with his studies of draped silk cloth shining against matte-black and gray shadows, and torsos rendered with lush charcoal drawinglike texture and depth. His compositions are as visually evocative and haunting as late-night ballads.

Picturing settings as diverse as Ethiopia, Israel, Alaska and Pennsylvania Dutch Quaker country, Emerson Matabele’s nine sepia prints are connected by a central theme, the dignity of the human spirit. Each of the images whispers its intent with the subtlety of the burnished gold in which it is framed.

With this new show, Pryor presents a quintet of artists with persuasive visions and the technical chops to compel us to reflect on the visual essence of each.


“Visual Essence” is at Dell Pryor Galleries (4201 Cass at Willis, Detroit) through Dec. 6. Call 313-833-6990.

Bill Harris writes about sounds and visions for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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