Curlee Raven Holton intends to burrow beneath the skin. In his current exhibition at Hammonds House Museum, Telling It Like It Is, Holton's works flay the myth of appearances from the inside out.
"The X's and the Y's" (1992) is a case in point. The small cut-plate etching hangs inconspicuously at the foot of the stairs. Its eccentric composition features a row of identically clad, black-draped figures throwing up what might be crudely rendered gang signs. Their faces are covered save for barely visible eyeholes, and each wears a cap marked with the letter X. They might be the Crips of L.A., or they could be the Bloods. Or maybe a row of burqa-wearing Iraqi women, or radical environmentalists. They're anything and everything – as generic as the letter X – and together, they elegantly stand in for any fearsome, ineffable group who "all look alike" to us.
Holton's a master printmaker who founded the Experimental Printmaking Institute at Easton, Pa.'s Lafayette College in 1996. Most of the show's two dozen prints reveal not only Holton's command of an astonishing array of printmaking methods – monoprint, etching, lithography, serigraphy – but also his finely tuned eye for the contradictions of culture, history and constructed identities.
For a pair of triptychs titled "Man Mask Meaning" (1993), Holton juxtaposes a Klan mask and a black cutout face with monochromatic fields of subtle off-black and off-white. He makes obvious what's often overlooked: that "black" and "white" are convenient masks and labels that hide as much as they reveal.
If the show's early prints are philosophical atom bombs, the three most recent works from 2002--2004 are mere firecrackers. Drenched in color, the compositions are less taut. Holton's earlier evocative lines and brush strokes, as well as specific, charged imagery, are all but lost in a profusion of mechanical marks and symbols of a generic multiculturalism. Fortunately, the rest of the show more than makes up for the weak patch.
Telling It Like It Is is concerned with so much more than naming victims and perpetrators in the ongoing American drama of race. Instead of focusing on the tribulations of a culture, Holton focuses on the dangers of perceiving cultures. He gives voice to the tragedy of being misseen and misconstrued. And that corrodes us all, black, white and everything in between.