Artists have long visualized the complexities of life and their own experiences through the media of painting. The majority of them who are familiar and successful have also relied on fixed social and aesthetic systems of meaning and analysis. They work within the traditional methodology and marketability of Western-European art history (with its “high-culture bias”).
Purvis Young is different. He is self-taught and self educated. He works within his own system and it is no less valuable than the one described above. Unlike many self-trained personalities who are described as “outsider” artists because they work without the benefits of academic training, Purvis Young has substituted a lack of formal education with intensive reading and study and is incredibly knowledgeable and sophisticated about the history of art. He applies his own personal ideology and unique world-view to the media of paint to create a visual language that expresses his concerns as much as it captures the life of the people and city that surround him.
Purvis Young is a storyteller. Considering his obsession for books and his insatiable appetite for knowledge about art, it is not surprising that his paintings and his books of paintings appear to serve the purpose of books. They all contain, preserve, and document knowledge of real life situations. Whether it is in bound form or painted on any available material that he happens to find, the images created by Purvis Young tell a story. Like his African-American ancestors who maintained the traditions and values of their people through storytelling, he continues to record the struggles, the hopes, and the joys of his world, the inner city of Miami called Overtown. This continued struggle of 200-plus years is still apparent in today‘s ghetto. As Purvis says, “If you want to reach the colored town, cross over the railroad tracks. That‘s the story.”
But the story he records in paint is also the story of everywhere. His concerns are universal. His view from the street is the view of the people, and although his visual language may be unsanctioned and unofficial, it is powerful and recognizable. It reaches the heart of everyone. Heads, figures, animals and icons Appear within the abstractions and marks of his complexly layered and colorful compositions. Nothing more than the banalities of the local landscape, they emerge as spontaneously as his reactions to events in the world that surrounds him. People on the street, animals, city buildings, trains, boats and trucks inhabit an imaginative painted surface. Consistent with his vernacular approach, Purvis Young eliminates all the traditional hierarchies of composition and perspectives while working the pigment until it seems as defined as an old public wall.
Purvis Young works with materials that he finds, recycles, puts together, recreates and constructs. It may be paper from old books or other discarded documents. It may be cardboard boxes, sheets of metal or pieces of wood. His contextually uncluttered approach to art makes no assumptions about what should or should not be used to produce his works, or how such materials should be combined. His style is aggressive and personal. Every stroke of color comes from his soul. Every figure, line, shape and form is essential to the story he tells. There are no extraneous details or insignificant marks. His kind of abstraction is not based on the lessons of the New York School, but on the necessities of his artistry alone. It is a more direct and spontaneous approach that allows him to reduce life‘s complexities to their most essential signs. Through art, he speaks the language of the people. Just as written language as communicated through a very condensed system of letters, Purvis Young tells his stories through paint to become the unofficial storyteller.
-1997 Carol Damian
Dr. Carol Damian is Professor of Art History in the School of Art and Art History and former Director and Chief Curator of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. She is a specialist in Latin American and Caribbean Art and the diaspora, as well as on the art of South Florida. She has written numerous books, catalogs and articles and lectures throughout the country.