Barbara Chase-Riboud. Photo- Marcia Tanner

Barbara Chase-Riboud: The Malcolm X Steles, is an exhibition not to miss. It’s inspirational, revelatory, ravishing to look at, and a dramatic contrast to The Possible: the experimental, hyper-interactive, buzzing, booming art-making project organized by local artist David Wilson that will occupy most of the Berkeley Art Museum through May 27.

Chase-Riboud had her first solo exhibition at the UC Berkeley Art Museum in 1973, at the invitation of the museum’s founding Director (now Emeritus) Peter Selz. At the time she was only the third female artist to have had a solo museum show in the United States. She was certainly the first female African American artist to have earned that singular recognition.

This stunning installation of Chase-Riboud’s sculpture and drawings is a home-coming of sorts: the triumphal kind of homecoming you dream about, where the locals are amazed by the magnificent things you’ve accomplished in the intervening years. One good reason for our amazement is that the artist has lived in Europe, Paris mostly, since the 1960s. And while she’s well-known in Europe — not only for her visual art but also for her numerous novels and books of poetry — we in the U.S. are only just catching up with her work.

Barbara Chase-Riboud: Malcolm X #3, 1969; polished bronze, cotton,
and rayon; 118 x 47 ¼ x 9 7/8 in.; Philadelphia Museum of Art,
purchased with funds contributed by Regina and Ragan A. Henry, and
with funds raised in honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Museum and
in celebration of African American art, 2001.

Now in her 70s, Chase-Riboud is back on the U.S. radar screen. Barbara Chase-Riboud: The Malcolm X Steles was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia was the artist’s home town, and where she first studied art. The Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive version is smaller — it fits into one gallery — but its impact is outsized.

The installation is dominated by six tall, imposing sculptures made of cast bronze and fiber. While three-dimensional, they are meant to be seen frontally, not in the round. They are displayed beautifully on raised platforms, within ethereal alcoves made of sheer fabric.

Although abstract, they’re anthropomorphic; they resemble enigmatic personages veiled or encased in convoluted armor, wearing long skirts of knotted and braided silk, wool, cotton, linen and synthetics. Their bronze torsos are composed of fluid, Baroque folds of metal, made by a lost-wax process the artist invented using sheets of pliable wax. The skirts conceal the supporting armature and anchor the torsos weightlessly, as though they are floating. Hard metal and soft fiber interact; the fiber penetrates the polished metal in places, and vice versa, and the contrasting materials literally reflect each other.

Chase-Riboud began making these works around the time of the U.S. civil rights movement and the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X. Her Malcolm X Steles — there are two in this show — commemorate the life and work of that important civil rights leader.

A stele (pronounced stee-lee in English, stell in French) is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected as a monument, often for funerary or commemorative purposes. Found in many cultures both ancient and modern, stelae often have texts or decoration inscribed, carved or painted onto the surface. A gravestone is a form of stele.

Like the other, similar sculptures in this show, Chase-Riboud’s stelae also resemble African masks of supernatural entities, whose straw skirts are meant to hide the human identity of the wearer when worn in religious ceremonies.

Barbara Chase-Riboud: Confessions for Myself, 1972; bronze paint, and
wool; 120 x 40 x 12 in.; purchased with funds from the H.W. Anderson
Charitable Foundation.

All of these pieces are elegiac yet celebratory. Potent presences, benign and brooding, slightly menacing, they express enormous if stifled power, hidden sorrow, and a fierce assertive sensuality.

Confessions for Myself (1972) might be a covert self-portrait. It suggests a widow in deep mourning: a black-shrouded female figure, draped in a lavishly sinuous carapace like an armor-plated burka with a problematic robe of complicated knotted strands flowing beneath.

The show includes several exquisite works on paper: charcoal and graphite drawings, and a series of “Monument” engravings reworked with charcoal, charcoal pencil, pen, and ink. The triptych Le Lit (The Bed), 1966 uses the image of a couple on a bed to trace (à la Matisse’s “Back” series) the dissolution of discernible figures on a horizontal plane into a flat Cubist abstraction.

You will be surprised and awed by this exhibition, which is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue. Please go see it.

Barbara Chase-Riboud: The Malcolm X Steles, is at UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through April 27, 2014.

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