Ebony Tree by Ernie Barnes
May 20th Abell presents Ebony Tree by Ernie Barnes
The circa-1985 painting The Ebony Tree by American artist Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) captures the elongated aesthetic that characterizes the artist’s work and brings forth his interest in honoring his heritage and the Black community as a whole through an expressive visual language. While nowadays these themes are commonly seen among mainstream contemporary artists of color and have acquired particular relevance since the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, Barnes, who has recently received a long overdue recognition from art scholars and huge market success, is credited for being one of the first modern-day artists to openly celebrate blackness through a unique painting style. Without a doubt, the vibrantly colored oil painting offered by Abell Auction Co, which is the largest of Barnes’ works to hit the auction market, is a testament to his influential role in the development of contemporary Black American art at a time when the art world is striving to expand the canon. Robin Pogrebin, Ernie Barnes’s Sugar Shack Painting Brings Big Price at Auction, The New York Times, May 12, 2022, via https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/12/arts/design/ernie-barnes-sugar-shack-monet-leutze.html, [Accessed 03/05/2023].
Remarkably, whilst revealing Barnes’ signature brushwork, The Ebony Tree, also marks a breakthrough in the artist’s oeuvre as it bears an allegorical quality not seen in in the public eye. which often portray buoyant everyday and sport-life scenes inspired by his upbringing in segregated North Carolina and his career as a professional football player. These two aspects, next to Barnes’ formal art training in the all-black North Carolina College in Durham, where he was exposed to Classic and Modern art, shaped the kinetic, fluid, and approachable painting style that defined his practice over his eventful career. Notably, even if during his football years Barnes never departed from his craft, he devoted entirely to it once he retired from professional sports and relocated to Los Angeles, where he promptly acquired notoriety mainly among his clientele of celebrities and sports-world art patrons that supported him since the mid-1960s. (Daria Simone Harper, How Ernie Barnes’ Paintings Became Celebratory Emblems of Black Southern Life, Artsy, Aug 2020, via https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-ernie-barness-paintings-celebratory-emblems-black-southern-life, [Accessed 04/05/2023].
Therefore, by the 1980s, when Barnes’ supporter John Grayson commissioned this painting, which was unveiled in 1985 at a fundraiser held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in benefit of the Afro-Centric Marcus Garvey School (LA), Barnes was already a popular figure known mainly for The Sugar Shack, featured in the 70s sitcom Good Times, and his sports scenes for the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics. Nadja Sayej, Ernie Barnes: the overlooked legacy of the athlete turned celebrity artist, The Guardian, Jun 2021, via https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jun/27/ernie-barnes-legacy-nfl-painting-olympics-art, [Accessed 04/05/2023]. However, in The Ebony Tree, rather than portraying a quotidian scene, Barnes, who as shown in a photograph repeatedly met with Grayson to discuss its subject matter, created a seascape view that includes a myriad of motifs that touch upon the conflicting past of African Americans but that also acknowledge and celebrates their present and future.
In this complex genre painting, the many references to African culture are particularly felt in the scarcely dressed young black men and children with traditional hairstyles that occupy the foreground and are flanking a female figure dressed in tribal African attire. Notably, the artist captured them looking at the horizon line where a group of lilac-colored buildings, representing modern-day America, are appreciated below Barnes’ distinctive sky constructed with saturated blue hues. Interestingly, the black woman in the center of the composition, who has been identified as a West African griot, or storyteller, is narrating the story of the African slaves who were traded and shipped to the “New World” to be used as the workforce and afterward contributed greatly to shaping the nation. This story is materialized in a series of clouds arranged in a tree-like configuration populated by voluptuous Michelangelo-inspired cherubs. Remarkably, some of them have a darker skin color and hold objects that relate to the present-day contributions of African Americans in their roles as Olympic athletes, doctors, graduate students, and many others. Next to their symbolism, the capricious postures of the cherubs and the elongated limbs of the figures standing on the beach reveal Barnes’ mastery of the human body proportions and his unparalleled understanding of movement stemming from his past as an athlete.
Overall, this painting created by Barnes speaks of the importance of remembering the African legacy of America, which is represented through the roots and thorns placed on the beach sand that seem to dissolve in the sea waters separating the two continents. However, it also speaks on the possibility of building a brighter future with the help of talented hands coming from varied backgrounds. In this way, the painting reflects on pressing subjects that remain relevant to this day and captures the complex relations that lie at the intersection between race, social biases, and modernity, all of which Barnes experienced firsthand. All this is told through a powerful female character, also present in other of the artist’s compositions like Miss America (1970), that brings to life the metaphoric ebony tree and at the same time seems to protect and nurture those that surround her. Victoria L. Valentine, Curator Bridget R. Cooks Explains how the Ernie Barnes Retrospective landed at the California African American Museum, Sep. 2019 via https://www.culturetype.com/2019/09/01/curator-bridget-r-cooks-explains-how-the-ernie-barnes-retrospective-landed-at-the-california-african-american-museum/, [Accessed 04/05/2023].
Interestingly, over time, Barnes revisited this type of symbolic language to showcase varied topics, such as the selection process of the NBA captured in The Dream Unfolds (1996), where he included the aspiring athletes in a similar arrangement to that of the cherubs, and in a mural painting commissioned by Kanye West in 2005 to commemorate a life-threatening accident the rapper faced. However, The Ebony Tree is especially interesting because it reveals the artist’s ideology connected to the “Black is beautiful” movement, which he prefigured in the 1970s traveling exhibition The Beauty in the Ghetto, next to his spiritual world. Victoria L. Valentine, Ernie Barnes Retrospective brings renewed attention to the African American artist who found fame after playing pro-Football, Culture Type, 2019 via https://www.culturetype.com/2019/09/06/ernie-barnes-retrospective-brings-renewed-attention-to-african-american-artist-who-found-fame-after-playing-pro-football/#:~:text=In%201971%2C%20Barnes%20organized%20a,celebrity%20supporters%20and%20local%20elected, [Accessed 04/05/2023].
Certainly, The Ebony Tree uncovers yet another facet of a prolific artist who is finally being valued with Barnes’ works recently breaking all auction estimates, being featured in large-scale museum retrospectives, and being offered by world-class art galleries like Ortuzar Projects and Andrew Kreps Gallery. Alex Greenberger, Ernie Barnes Estate Gets Gallery Representation Following Auction Surprise, Art News, May 19, 2022, via https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/ernie-barnes-estate-andrew-kreps-gallery-ortuzar-projects-1234629108/, [Accessed 04/05/2023]. All this proves the comeback of this visionary artist, who passed away in 2009, is here to stay and is one more example of the traction the work of Black American artists is increasingly having on a global scale which hopefully will replicate in other much-needed changes. “For someone born and raised during the Jim Crow era, with themes of social justice entwined in many of his paintings, I think he would see this time as a call to action,” said Luz Rodriguez, the manager of the artist’s estate. (Daria Simone Harper, How Ernie Barnes’ Paintings Became Celebratory Emblems of Black Southern Life, Artsy, Aug 2020, via https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-ernie-barness-paintings-celebratory-emblems-black-southern-life, [Accessed 04/05/2023].