Art and Identity: Elizabeth Catlett

By Herzog, Melanie | School Arts, December 1992 | Go to article overview

Art and Identity: Elizabeth Catlett


Herzog, Melanie, School Arts


Style and Imagery

Many artists speak eloquently about who they are and where they come from in the images they create, and in the styles and media they choose to convey their artistic ideas. A work of art can reveal an artist's sense of identity as an individual, and also as a member of a society and a culture. This sense of identity can alter over time with the changing circumstances of an artist's life. Such chages can have an impact on the artist's work as well.

Elizabeth Carlett is an African-American sculptor and graphic artist who has lived and worked in Mexico for many years. While her identity as an African-American woman is at the core of the stylistic language and content of her art, her style and imagery has also been shaped by her experience in Mexico. The work of the Mexican uralists was well-known in te United States, and Cat;ett was drawn to the social and political cosciousness manifested in this public art for, as well as to the murals' style and imagery. She was also familiar with the strong graphic arts tradition of Mexico, and with the work of the Taller de Grafica Popular (People's Graphic Arts Workshop), a Mexican graphics collective that produced many prnts in support of workerss unions and antifascis, illustratios for literacy programs and images of working and poor people. Carlette became a member of the Taller, and during her twenty-year association with them, developed a graphic language based in the style of the Taller artist. While she has continued to work in this style, her prints have increasingly taken on a variety of characteristics, particularly rhythms and patterns derive from African art. Carlett's prints are similar to those of her fellow Taller artists in their characteristics texture, rhythms and stark dramatic angularity. Her prints are unique in their subject, however, in relation to work produced by other artists at the Taller. Carletts's subjects are almost always derived from her African-American heritage and centered on the depiction of the Black woman.

Carlett's predominant theme in her sculpture and prints is Black woman's strenght, dignity and pride. This is conveyed by the style as well as the subject of her work. Mother with child (centerspread) depicts this theme in a simplified, realist style. The angle of the woman's head and her facial expression give this figure of gentle dignity. The solidity of the woman's pose imbuse this relatively small, carved-wood sculpture with a felling of monumentality, as does the artist's simplification of the figures of the woman an dchild to their essential forms, forgoing any extraneous detail. the forms of the woman and the child are treated in a geometric, slightly abstract style, suggesting sources of inspiration that include African, Mexican and pre-Columbian sculpture as well as European and American Modernism.

The softened angularity, smooth planar surfaces and masklike faces of the two figures recall the African sculptural traditions that Carlett regards as part of her artistic heritage, and the pre-Colubian sculpture that has inspired her during her stay in Mexico. Much of her sculpture, like much African sculpture, is carved of wood. She also works with clay, using the techniques of the pre-columbian sculptural tradition she learned in Mexico.

Catlett's Mother with Child is also similar to the solid, moumental, simplified forms of much mexican and United States sculpture form the 1930s and 1940s, a style the artist has continued to findeffective for conveying the meaning of her work. Like her printmaking, Catlett's sculpture has remained figurative throghout her career. Her sculptural treatment of the figure, however, ranges from depictions of African-American women as workers and mothers in the simplified realist style of her Mother with Child, to more abstract depictions of similar subjects. Her intention is to create images that speak to her primarily African-American audience about their heritage and their lives. …

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