ARTFORUM: Joe Overstreet

Joe Overstreet’s experimental paintings from the early 1970s were made to be suspended from ceilings and tied to floors using a system of ropes and grommets. As a result, they occupy a good deal of three-dimensional space, and by design their shapes change every time they are installed, depending on how they are stretched out, draped, or crumpled. In some works, such as St. Expedite II and Untitled, both 1971, and Untitled, 1972, Overstreet has painted squares of canvas in solid colors—red, green, navy blue, deep purple—edged in contrasting stripes. Other works, such as the enormous Boxes, 1970, play with vibrant patterns of geometric abstraction but, at the same time, appear haunted by the ghosts of earlier, more figurative gestures. Others still, such as Purple Flight, 1971, are splattered with fast-flung drips of paint. Taken together, the fifteen paintings and six works on paper in this exhibition looked like the sails of a ship, kites, flags, or the flaps of a nomadic tribe’s tents. Such evocations and associations swirled around a dense matrix of further allusions—expressed in titles as well as in statements by the artist and the curator, Horace Brockington—to the histories of slavery and lynching in the American South, to free jazz and the Harlem Renaissance, and to the spiritual uses of objects and visual idioms in West African, Islamic, and American Indian traditions. The effect was a welcome whirlwind, unsettling established histories of who has made what kind of art, and why.


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