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Paintings by LeRoi at the New Gallery at 1120 Main Street

LeRoi Johnson with his work at 1120 Main Street.

Electric Primitive

A new art exhibit space opens tonight with a show by a self-taught symbolist/surrealist artist who signs his work with one name, LeRoi. The exhibit space is a project of John Fatta, in his building at 1120 Main Street, just south of the corner of Main and Summer. Inessential but interesting information about the artist is that he is the brother of the late rock star Rick James.

The symbols are many and varied. Favelas, the general term for shanty towns in Brazil, the most notable of which, no doubt because most visible, on mountainsides around Rio de Janeiro, where the artist has visited, symbolizing poor people in general, whom he also calls—with no denigrative connotation, but just the opposite, in accord with his thematic identification with the poor and underprivileged—“primitives.”

Another symbol is people with faces that are half black and half white. He calls these folk “colored people,” which is not a racial designation, but indicates good people of any race.

Some symbols are more or less universal—water, a recurring image, a symbol of life, a rainbow for hope—and some personal and idiosyncratic. A “protector” figure, always with an umbrella. An animal that looks a little like a miniature white cow or bull, with oversize pig ears, he calls a “bullis.” And numerous and eclectic gods and goddess.

A painting called Voodoo Woman recalls an incident that happened to the artist in Haiti, when a woman suddenly spit on him some kind of turpentine-smelling substance, and by so doing blessed him, as she later explained to him. In the painting, a woman in white is smoking a cigar. In the background is a high-rise favela, and elsewhere a cat and a bullis, both also smoking cigars. “I don’t paint things the way they are,” he says, “but the way they are in my world.” Like the man with the blue guitar.

A Garden of Eden picture features Adam and Eve and a white knight on a horse. A St. George and the dragon picture features George on a horse, the dragon in the form of a soldier of an army fighting primitives, also favelas on fire, and people escaping the fire via rockets on their back.

A painting the artist says is a self-portrait shows a figure whose head is a blaze of radiant white light (“the ideas coming out of my head”), holding globes representing the earth in one hand, the sun in the other (“what we’re made out of, earth and sun”), and levitating, via little rockets on his feet (“imagination makes you levitate”).

A stunningly lovely double portrait of a mother and father is a collaboration work of the artist and his daughter when she was a child.

Another work, called My Father Wears a Green Suit, shows a man in a green suit, along with a painted version of an African sculpture of a seated woman and child, amid a barren landscape with an unpainted, time-worn and weather-beaten house one has seen the like of in Walker Evans photos of the rural South during the Great Depression. The artist said—though he himself was born and raised in Buffalo—the house and land represent his ancestral family home and homestead in Georgia.

Another painting reveals the artist’s apparently less-than-approving view of President Barack Obama, featuring portraits of Obama—not as a black man, not as “colored,” but chalk white—and Michelle speaking phrases from boxer Muhammed Ali. Obama says: “I’m the king of the world.” Michelle says: “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” At the top of the painting are some drone aircraft. At the bottom a collaged photo from a Harper’s Weekly magazine from the post Civil War era showing black workers toiling in a field. Not much different from when they were slaves. The Harper’s photo recalls the ancestral homestead painting.

This is naïve art, folk art, a congeries of symbols and significations that do not always cohere, but cohere overall, that are sometimes idiosyncratic and individualist, but ultimately universalist, about a history and heritage of social and economic injustice, and the struggle to rise above it, if just by dint of an act of the imagination.

The exhibit continues through November 3.

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