This is “Knoxville: Summer of 1919″, by a young artist named Cy Gavin whom I discovered at Revision Space gallery in Pittsburgh, where he had stopped by for a talk with his dealer. Gavin’s from western Pennsylvania, but next term he begins an MFA at Columbia. This little painting shows a black-skinned figure toppled over by its (his? her?) afro, while in the background either Whistlerian fireworks or a missile barrage seem to light up the sky. The title points to the race riot that consumed Knoxville in the late summer of 1919. But Gavin also wants his title to evoke “Knoxville: Summer of 1915″, a prose-poem by James Agee that Samuel Barber set to haunting music. Agee’s text presents a rhapsodic image of a hot and quiet evening in the old (white) South, and Barber’s composition conjures that scene. Gavin’s painting is in counterpoint to the vision of those men, clearly, but it doesn’t feel quite right to say that it’s in opposition. It is rhapsodic, too, in its own way, rather as Edvard Munch’s most tortured landscapes can be. Is it right to think of Gavin’s afro as an inaudible scream?
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