Rik Freeman doesn’t want to paint flowers, dogs running, or geese flying. He needs something he can sink his teeth, his brain, and his heart into. He’s found it with his series of paintings based on the Chittlin’ Circuit, a string of theaters where black entertainers performed during the ’40s through the ’60s.
His exhibition stars fictional traveling jazz musicians Mud Paw Willie and Critter Gitter, who crop up in various escapades throughout this 25-piece-strong collection. Freeman’s aim is to capture the joy and pain of those times and people that mainstream history is wont to forget.
“I want viewers to feel something, not just see that they’re figures or that they’re anatomically correct,” he said while visiting the City Gallery to talk about his work. “It’s like music … a song should make you feel, or it’s missing what a song’s all about.”
Music is an intrinsic part of the narrative paintings. Freeman’s characters play guitars, pianos, harmonicas, and quills, better known as panpipes. If they don’t have any real instruments, they make their own out of pieces of cane, a jug, or a pail (“Homemade Music”). Even during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, they’re strumming and humming to keep their spirits up (“Mad River”).
If that sounds unrealistic, then remember that Freeman’s more interested in the mood than the minutiae. “T’aint Nuttin Nu” includes a dancer with disproportionate legs, enabling the artist to exaggerate her movements. The fire in “Outback” has tongues of blue and pink flame, but it’s still a recognizable fire. The important thing is the emotional effect of the paintings. Figures twist and curve in unlikely ways, warped by the almost tangible blues notes around them.
Freeman marries African-American folk art traditions with the powerful sense of toil and motion found in Thomas Hart Benton’s rural work. One painting evokes Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” with its moody dockside setting and dark background colors (“Jez Me”). There’s pain behind the soulful singing.
Freeman grew up in Athens, Ga., and started his artistic career with publicly commissioned murals. But he realized that his direct social commentary was a serious downer, and it wasn’t necessarily the kind of art that collectors might want to buy or put on their walls. He needed to find a way to make a social and political statement that was also pleasing to the eye. In the early ’90s, he came up with the answer: the vivid, rhythmic, picaresque Chittlin Circuit.
“One day people can look at one of my paintings and see joy with light colors, another day pain with dark colors,” said the artist. “I want to depict characters so that I bring out their soul, what makes them thrive and survive.”
Despite some of the poverty and oppressive themes present in the show, there’s always a ray of hope brightening Freeman’s moving colors. “I didn’t want to just show ‘oh woe is me’,” he said. “I wanted to say you may have your foot on my neck, but one day I’m getting up.”
As the series grows and develops, the painter now instinctively knows what he has to correct or leave to complete the “swirls and flame-like twirls of images” in each piece. “Each drawing is like a map,” he explained. “They tell me where to go so I can play with the colors in the open spaces.” Yet his most recent paintings are as vibrant and energetic as his earliest ones; there are no bum notes in this gig. The music carries us forward, a teasing lead-in to the next adventure of Mud Paw and Critter.
With blues as the soundtrack, Freeman explores many important Southern motifs including building railroads, picking cotton, farming, cooking, and dancing in juke joints. The women have a strong physical presence and the men are sage and grizzled (especially the white-bearded, overall-clad Critter). From Reconstruction through to the harsh mid-20th Century, the artist creates an entertaining alternate timeline of black America.