When I walked into the paintings of Willie J. Bonner at the Tucson Museum of Art last week, I couldn’t help myself. I had to share my delight.
“They’re so pretty,” I blurted out to the security guard, someone I had never met.
“Yeah,” he said. “The colors are really nice.”
Make that gorgeous.
Thanks to Bonner and 36 of his paintings, one of the museum’s biggest galleries is a brilliant blaze of color.
The large-scale 2020 painting “The Invisible Man,” just for instance, is a jazzy confection of lemon yellow, sky blue, royal blue, pink, lavender, ochre, brown, dark green and black.
“Hours After,” from 2021, boasts orange, gold, white, twilight blue and burnt sienna.
Bonner’s paintings, both big and small, are semi-abstract, filled with lively geometric shapes and diagonals and lines zipping across the canvases.
The artist lives in Tucson, but he grew up in Cleveland, listening to jazz, an art form inspired in part by African rhythms. In turn, those rhythms have shaped his energetic paintings.
But his works also reflect “what it means to be Black” in America, as a museum note puts it. If you take a closer and longer look at these joyful works, you’ll find some bitter-sweet narratives among the pretty colors.
The 2012 painting “Taking a Chance on Chance” (colors: black, blue, green, gold and white) has a lovely blue sky and puffy white clouds above the sea. But a palm tree below is disconcertingly black. And if you look closely at the water, you’ll see a big catfish—and what looks like a slave ship carrying a crowd of Black people destined for bondage. Over the boat, Bonner has painted the word “Americ,” an incomplete word that suggests America is not yet complete.
“The Invisible Man,” painted in the year of the murder of George Floyd, is filled with sweet pastel colors, but the more you look at it, the more unnerving it gets. Is that a man hiding—or hanging—on the pink doorway? Is the brown orb below the head of a man?
Sometimes, Bonner goes right to the chase. In “The Night of the Purple Moon,” a swirl of yellow, pink, blue and black, he paints words that conjure up a history of injustices against African Americans. He covers wrongs both old and new. He references Clotilda, the “last American slaver,” and today’s Black Lives Matter movement; and the African Kingdom of Dahomey, which sold Africans as slaves and the “birther” lie that Obama was not born in the U.S., and so on.
Bonner, now in his late 60s, has the unusual ability both to paint beautifully and to denounce the wrongs of the world. Wrenching as some of his pieces are, Bonner is at heart an optimist. He loves to paint human hands of all colors, reaching out one to another, finding justice.
Bonner’s wonderful show is part of a clever summer exhibition at the museum. 4X4 created four separate solo shows for four very different local artists, each of them hailing from a distinct cultural community. Aside from Bonner, the artists are young, all in their 30s.
Anh-Thuy Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American, now the head of the photography program at Pima Community College, was born in 1983 in Vietnam. Her poetic photographs embody the longing for home and the difficulties immigrants have “living between two cultures,” as the museum notes say.
Her luminous installation “The Boat Journey” series, hangs at the entrance of the whole show. It’s the first thing visitors see. (and should be) The work has four enigmatic photos arranged in a square. The colors of these large images are delicate and muted—black, blue, white—and they’re printed onto aluminum.
Each one shows the same dreamlike woman in traditional Vietnamese dress. She’s in different positions in every picture; she sits high on a hill looking at the valley below, walks across a stone street, holds a tiny boat close, seeks refuge in an Asian tree. We never see her face but her yearnings for her lost home are palpable. Nearby, a small flotilla of small boats that Nguyen crafted out of leather sits on shelf, a poignant memory of the journey.
The woman, notes say, is a semi-autobiographical character named Thuy that Nguyen invented years ago almost as a stand-in for herself. So Nguyen is both the photographer and subject.
Another series, “Thuy and Sand,” shows the woman struggling across a white sea of sand, dragging an old-time carpet bag. The three lovely photos, glistening in the whiteness, take her farther and farther away until she nearly disappears.
Not all of Nguyen’s works are poignant. Some are about discrimination. In the wake of the violence against Asians in America, a video has Thuy screaming with rage.
Like Nguyen, artist Alejandro Macias navigates two different cultures. The difference is that he’s an American citizen, born and raised in Brownsville, Texas. He’s enmeshed in both the Mexicano culture of the Rio Grande Valley and American popular culture, but he identifies as Mexican American. His bright paintings of Latinx people aim in part to counteract the push toward assimilation.
“Where It Takes Root,” an oil and acrylic on canvas, pictures a young Mexican-American dressed in bright colors. But we don’t see the top of his head. It’s covered by a tangle of roots, slithering its way down into the boy’s brain, delivering the traditions and wisdom of the forebears. “Hidden in Plain Sight” shows the opposite. A young man seen from the back looks up at the southwest mountain range and a deep blue sky. But the man can’t see anything. Bands of color are wound around him, covering his eyes, silencing his voice.
Macias has drawn an elegant black and white self-portrait that highlights his own divide. The landscape serves as a metaphor for his dual life. In one of the two portraits, he stands in front of his beloved Rio Grand River. In the other, he’s below some mountains, perhaps in Arizona. In trading a river for a mountain, he adds one more divide. And in each of the two pictures, there are two Macias, one there in the flesh, and one in ghostly memory.
Interestingly, Nazafarin Lotfi, born in Iran, is showing art that she made in Tucson during the pandemic. (Some of the pieces were created earlier at Artpace in San Antonio.)
There’s a lonely feel to this ecological work, with the solitary artist photographing outdoors in a world where people were hiding indoors. In two brightly colored photo works called “All Things that Grow,” a figure—Lofti herself?—is nearly invisible. The artist has made artificial rocks out of papier-maché and placed them in a grassy countryside. In one image you can see the figure’s hair and one leg. In the other, the rock is next to a dead tree trunk, and only one arm of the figure is visible. In any case, the human is dwarfed by nature.
Even more interesting, three of the human-made rocks are right inside the gallery. Called “Traces,” these sculptures take many forms. One, to me, looks like a mountain, but another, as the museum notes suggest, conjures up a shrouded figure and death. But the final work in this installation, brings us back to the light: it’s a large color photo on cotton sateen, swaying in the breezes, and picturing sun, sky and water—and another big rock.