The first element a visitor might notice when looking at Joseph Holston’s series of paintings titled “Color in Freedom” is the progression of colors, from somber blacks and blues, to predominant yellows, purples, even pinks.
At the North Carolina Central University Art Museum, you can follow that progression by looking at the full array of paintings, but you most likely will want to follow the paintings individually, and in sequence, to get the essence of the story Holston is telling.
“Color in Freedom: Journey along the Underground Railroad,” an exhibit of 50 paintings, drawings and etchings, goes on view today at the museum. The exhibit has been touring since 2008, and was presented at the United Nations Mission in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2010.
Born in 1944, Holston was trained in commercial art, but in 1972 left that field to concentrate on his painting and printmaking. Kenneth Rodgers, director of the NCCU Art Museum, called Holston “one of the most incredible realists that I have seen,” in reference to his earlier work. Now Holston is considered a “cubist-abstractionist,” Rodgers said.
Holston in his artist statement said he created “Color in Freedom” in movements “like a great jazz or symphonic score, with a definite beginning, middle and climax.” The four movements of this visual symphony are “The Unknown World,” “Living in Bondage – Life on the Plantation,” “The Journey of Escape” and “Color in Freedom.”
Holston uses color to symbolize the African-American journey from despair to hope. The painting “Contemplation of Despair” has deep blacks and reds. The painting shows the shape of a man’s face, with one arm in shackles. Black paint drips on the canvas from the face. “There’s something to me amazing about a head without features, because you can give it any interpretation you want,” Rodgers said of this painting.
He pointed to “On the Block” as an example of how Holston has used “a curvilinear, figurative representation” to tell his story. The viewer can make out the tall, curved figures on the canvas as slaves and slave masters. Bright yellow contrasts with the darker paint colors.
Even in paintings that express despair, Holston uses light to suggest hope. Rodgers points to “House of Refuge,” from the “Journey of Escape” movement, with its bright moonlight and light from a small fire as an example. He also notes “Place of Respite” from the “Living in Bondage” movement, in which a small patch of light comes in from a window, illuminating a woman who is probably getting ready to pluck feathers from a bird. “That’s a special ability,” being able to play with light using paint,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think it just happens.”
“Music is integral to my art,” Holston writes in his statement for this exhibit. “Each influences the other and helps define what unfolds on the canvas.” The titles to the paintings in this series reflect his love of music – “Rhythm of Renewal” and “Magnificent Melody” combine brighter colors with paintings of instruments, and movement that suggests dance. “Jubilation” and “Righteous Rejoicing” express joy about the new-found freedom.
“Creating this body of work was both a privilege and a source of inspiration,” Holston writes. “My principal goal was to honor those lives, and to do justice to their history and their stories.”