Collages Take On Race, Sexuality
Tony Gray: The Panther Series at Sherman Gallery
Viewers of Tony Gray: The Panther Series can be forgiven for feeling like they’ve entered a time capsule transporting them back to the early 1970s. The latest show at the Sherman Gallery depicts African American men sporting afros, turtlenecks, and bell-bottoms, many of them brandishing pistols with the kind of swagger that recalls television shows like The Mod Squad and the blaxploitation films popular during that decade.
This latest series by New York–based Gray explores representations of African American men—and to a lesser degree, women—in popular culture and mass media.
“Lots of stuff happened in the ’60s and ’70s that reverberate today,” Gray says. “The war, integration, aspirations for upward mobility, and youth culture. They may seem familiar to viewers through family photos, fashion, Hollywood films, or TV.”
Using painting, drawing, old photographs, and other ephemera, the artist creates collages on op-design wallpaper that examine issues of race and sexual orientation.
“Through drawing and collage, Gray represents a kaleidoscopic and hypnotic Afro-centric worldview in which past and future converge in provocative juxtapositions,” notes Lynne Cooney (GRS’08,’15), College of Fine Arts School of Visual Arts exhibitions director. “His work brings to the foreground the racialized and sexualized subtext within images of African American men in the media.”
The most provocative series in the exhibition comprises a dozen drawings on paper of nude or partially clad men, along with seemingly random photographs, some clearly homoerotic. But these are no idealized representations of the male body. The men depicted here having aging, imperfect bodies. “Drawing them bald and with paunches allowed more range and vulnerability,” says Gray.
The idea for the Panther series (he had done previous series titled Black Fairy and Mermaid) is rooted in the artist’s childhood. Gray recalls being deeply impressed by some drawings he saw during a summer school program he was enrolled in as a child in the late 1960s in San Diego. “This kid drew black men in afros and turtlenecks that were stabbing and shooting anthropomorphized pigs,” he says. “They were powerful images, and I had never seen anything like them before.” This series is “an attempt to replicate those drawings.”
The seemingly arbitrary placement of photos appearing alongside Gray’s depiction of African-American men makes the viewer wonder about the political message the artist is trying to convey. The photos include old posed elementary school class pictures, singing groups of men and women (mostly white) from the 1960s that recall a kind of lost innocence and toothy wholesomeness, an all-white police group during roll call, and men (white and black) modeling varsity letter sweaters. Many of the photos, Gray says, “are just plain funny.”
Viewers staring at these works may be puzzled, but for his part, Gray seems intent on letting them draw their own conclusions. “My strongest work,” he says, “re-creates conversations, either concretely or by implication. It’s great when my work stimulates that in a viewer.”
Tony Gray: The Panther Series is on view at the Sherman Gallery, George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave., second floor, until May 20. The gallery is open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. The show is free and open to the public.1 Comments