“Birch’s new messages more subtle.. And the images are more universal”, New Orleans Times-Picayune

Birch’s new messages more subtle

And the images are more universal


Willie Birch is a native son of the Crescent City whose firebrand political art has made him a player on the national and even international art scenes. Over the past two years, though, his work has changed so much that you could easily miss the political messages. Don’t worry, they’re still there.

At first, the suite of 6-foot-tall charcoal drawings colored with acrylic paint in his new exhibit, “Portraits: Witnessing New Orleans,” have the feel of casual snapshots taken in the neighborhoods along St. Claude and Rampart streets. Here is a trio of shirt-less kids frolicking in the summer heat with cups of Kool-Aid clamped I their teeth. There’s a chubby man in a Dalmatian costume, heading out on Mardi Gras morning. And here is another Carnival celebrant in a brilliant-blue, feathered cape and headdress.

They are the sort of images that might have caught anyone’s eye as they strolled between the city’s modest frame houses and store fronts. In Birch’s hands, they become subtle signifiers of social issues-especially racial issues. “Young Couple (The Kiss),” for instance is an African-American man and woman embracing on the sidewalk beside their car. The charming painting seems to belie the supposition that black households are forever in jeopardy. As the title indicates, “Young Couple (Confronting the Black/White Myth)” is a warm double portrait of a black man and a white woman hugging one another and staring forthrightly at the viewer. The only thing remarkable about their union is their races. In “The Haircut,” one African-American man gives the other a trim on the front porch; presumably they will change places when the first is suitably groomed. The image indicates the possibility of sharing resources in the face of poverty.

In “Evoking Painful Memories,” a street performer in partial black-face makeup mugs for tourists-an echo of stereotypes of the past. “Old Soldiers Never Die” is an elderly African-American in uniform, riding in the back of a pickup truck during a Veteran’s Day parade; it speaks of the sacrifices blacks have made for the country they still struggle to share. Best of all is “Everybody Is Irish for a Day,” the image of two St. Patrick’s Day revelers, wearing shamrock beads and sill hats. Here, Birch suggests that with time and effort all racial distinctions could be relegated to benign celebrations.

This suite of work is a step forward for Birch in two regards. First, as justified as his political opinions have always been, Birch’s past work was often pedantic, with slogans and rhetorical questions scribed across the surfaces of his sculpture and paintings like billboards. This work is much less clear-cut and instructional. A Dalmatian costume may be a symbol for a person or culture that is neither entirely white, nor entirely black, but it may also simply be a visually compelling pattern. In the past Birch would have made certain we knew his intentions explicitly. Now he lets us draw our own conclusions. He has stepped away form pamphleteering toward poetry, from emblem to symbol.

Secondly, Birch’s style is becoming more engaging. For years he produced crudely rendered, childlike drawings and convincingly coarse faux-primitive papier-mâché sculpture that made a great first impression but were formally too stiff and frontal to remain interesting for long. His recent paintings, which seem to be based on photographs, retain some of the deliberate clumsiness, but he is allowing his sophistication (Birch has a master’s degree in fine art) to emerge. Note, for instance, the way Birch outlines everything with the same firm charcoal stroke-shadows, changes in color, facial creases, everything-then brushes passages of thinned color inside the dusty lines. This balance between line, color and form causes his paintings to hover between full volume and flatness-a spatial ambiguity favored by artists form Matisse to Clemente. This sort of finesse was absent in his earlier work.

Observing the shift in an artist’s style is one thing, figuring out the reason is another. Birch is old enough to recall that as a child, he and his fellow African-American classmates were led through the back entrance of the New Orleans Museum of Art for a tour of the almost exclusively European collection. Now his own work is on permanent display there (look in the center of the “Starting Point” gallery). As a politically savvy artist, Birch may simply be altering his voice to better fit the times. In the ’70s and ’80s, the circumstances of race relations in the United States demanded stridency. Now, though the struggle for African-American equality is hardly over, the social milieu allows for a more measured, more conciliatory tone. Birch, who could have easily rested on his past accomplishments and continued on a familiar path, has decided instead to alter his approach. He succeeds admirably.