Men in Black

Will Bonner's art turns movies upside down by putting African Americans in white roles.

In the old days, when movie posters were routinely plastered over city walls and tenement halls, they would gradually deteriorate and became part of the urban landscape.

New posters might be pasted on top of them, and graffiti artists would add drawings and words of their own. As the layers began to peel, you could see through once again to the poster underneath. Excavating to the deepest layer, you'd find a stray movie title or a bit of movie star's cheek peering out from under the tatters.

Will Bonner's huge oil paintings in his provocative Invisible Illusions series, now at Davis Dominguez Gallery, mimic this street aesthetic. About 12 feet high and 5 feet wide, they're many times bigger than your typical movie poster, but they have the same mysterious, even confused, hodgepodge of images as weathered street bills. At the top, white graffiti drawings float over bright fields of color and drips of paint that mimic peeling paper. Underneath, faded fragments of stars' faces are painted in the sepia tones of memory.

Other artists, notably the photographer Aaron Siskind, have used peeling city signs abstractly, to represent the unconscious poetry of the streets. Bonner uses them in an entirely different way. His last big show in town, at the old UA Student Union gallery, conjured up a jazzy vision of urban America oriented around the street. This time around, he uses the all-American movie, and its posters, to delve, layer by layer, into racial ideas at the heart of the American experience.

On view with Erotica, new etchings by Rancho Linda Vista artist Andrew Rush, Bonner's paintings excavate the archaeology of racial meaning in American movies such as The Wizard of Oz, Birth of a Nation, To Kill a Mockingbird, It's a Wonderful Life and King Kong.

The painting "On the Sunny Side of the Street" reworks Gone With the Wind. Nearly buried beneath numerous applications of bright pink and cerulean paint, a faded Clark Gable strikes his familiar manly pose, bending over to kiss Vivien Leigh. But when you look at the woman in his arms, you're startled to find that she's not Scarlett. She's Mammy. And while ol' Rhett is as handsome as ever, he's painted sepia. Could it be that he's actually a black man? And if he were, how would that have changed the story?

Gone With the Wind, the classic American movie about the Civil War, does a breathtaking end run around the war's essential moral issue: the question of slavery. Nor does it venture into the whole complex of black-white relations. But Bonner, by substituting a black slave for the white mistress in the love scene, and painting everyone's skin the same warm brown, abruptly raises a host of thorny racial questions literally whitewashed by the movie.

Elsewhere in the painting is a faded tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the celebrated black bomber pilots of World War II who faced racism and discrimination at home. More obscurely, an image of Washington's Capitol Dome floats, accompanied by the words, "a monthly check to you." But these thinly painted memories of the past, Rhett and Mammy included, are almost obliterated by a thick layer of bold blue and pink paint, whose color assaults the eyes and bring us back to the present.

The final layer of oil-stick drawings pictures such urban staples as a hopscotch grid, a line of cars and the stripes of a roadway. But these benign signs of the modern American city are all subservient to a big leering cartoon character. He's the black "pickanniny" of time-honored racial stereotype, kinky-haired and toothy-grinned, and his long arms loonily embrace the whole scene.

"You Are Too Beautiful," the King Kong painting, is particularly disturbing. Twice as big as the others--it has two vertical canvas panels instead of one--it pictures a monumental, terrifying Kong spreading his ape arms across the city, blonde Beauty in one hand. This most angry of the paintings explicitly links the great ape with the black man. A graffiti drawing in white--of a hip-hopper gangsta in a hood--updates the ape image to today. In silhouette, this contemporary kid looks just like Kong.

The rest of the movie poster paintings follow the same pattern. Everybody has that ambiguous sepia skin, and explicitly black figures up-end the conventional movie narrative. Gregory Peck as Atticus argues to a jury peopled by a host of racial stereotypes--a slanty-eyed Chinese man, a grinning black man. A black joins the familiar quartet of Dorothy, Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow. A ghostly Ku Klux Klan specter haunts Bonner's dark version of The Birth of a Nation. And everywhere, the chalky cartoon drawing of the grinning black man appears over and over again.

Bonner is taking a risk here, resurrecting an offensive racial stereotype to make a point (as Spike Lee did in his 2000 movie Bamboozled, which boldly unearthed minstrels in blackface). But that point is valid. Bonner's chalky graffiti character is the black of American nightmare: the spooky African American whose dark sexual desires unhinge white society. He lurks in the ex-slave camp in Gone With the Wind (and the local white gentry jump-start a chapter of the KKK to combat him). He stands accused of raping a white woman in To Kill a Mockingbird. And he's the subtext for the black Kong's lust for Beauty. Bonner has located him at the center of our most important movie myths.

Filled as they are with a jazzy potpourri of lettering and wildly divergent painting styles, these challenging works are lively pieces of art. Some six smaller paintings, liberated from a serious mission, are even more joyous excursions into color. Less fraught and more playful, they're splashed with sunshine yellow, sky blue and mint green.

A few large works depart from the movie theme, and instead lionize black history. "They Say It's Wonderful," an oil on board, is actually made up of 36 small paintings made to look like stamps honoring black musicians. Yet even this seemingly cheerful work, honoring the likes of Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington, has its dark side. Many of the faces are dimmed by a shadow, cast, ironically, by Lady Liberty's crown.

The plainest, but perhaps most eloquent, piece is "Athlete's Feet." Inspired in part by the new stereotype of blacks as athletes extraordinaire, it pictures the bottoms of endless pairs of feet, in three lines, simply drawn in white on a black ground. But if it punningly conjures up our sportsmen's pieds, it also evokes the dark history of slavery, which also prized black physicality. These are the feet of kidnapped Africans, piled up and tied up, row upon endless row, on slave ships.

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