Rosenbeck-Robert Johnson-G.jpg

"Robert Johnson with Fruit" by Matthew Rosenbeck

Historic black figures ranging from Marie Laveau to Malcolm X have been depicted frequently in art, but in this "Ain't I America" expo of mixed-media work at Stella Jones Gallery, Epaul Julien and Matthew Rosenbeck find new ways to see them.

The show shines as a vibrant installation in which the two artists’ works exist in a colorful dialogue about the meaning of being black in America as seen in the lives of iconic figures who helped define their times.

Julien takes a macro approach in many of his mixed-media collages which feature a melange of images. “A Woman's Place” spotlights black female activism with views of figures such as Angela Davis on a wanted poster, but others are more specific, even hagiographic, including an ornate wooden wall altar framing a painting of Laveau.

Julien's flair for wood shines in “Before Gentrification,” a sculpture of a ramshackle home atop a spindly pedestal. Its facade is a portrait of a young person in dreadlocks, and its roof is crowned by a battered trumpet. Here Julien's experimental way of putting a face and a form on abstract issues imbues them with a soulful, emotional aura.

Rosenbeck's mixed-media portraits portray familiar figures in graphically arresting new contexts. “Malcolm X” bristles with the tensions of an era he shaped, but blues icon “Robert Johnson with Fruit” (pictured) is more mysterious. Here the red-tinged fruit in the background evokes the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” which refers to lynched bodies hanging from trees.

Johnson's father barely escaped that fate when a lynch mob forced his family to flee after a dispute with a white landowner. Despite dying young, Johnson became one of the most influential figures in modern music, and like so many of the individuals depicted here, his whole life was a series of close calls. Through Sept. 27. Stella Jones Gallery, 201 St. Charles Ave., Suite 132, (504) 568-9050; www.stellajonesgallery.com.

Contact D. Eric Bookhardt at erikhardt@gmail.com.