Photos of Ringling student shine in ‘Everglow’ exhibit at Art Center

The question of identity and representation confronts every young black man.

A young black man should look like_________.

This question to fill out is not that easy and opens up a Pandora’s box of more questions. What is the acceptable presentation of self for a young black man? What are the limits ? What happens to anyone who changes code? Who’s deciding ?

These are tough questions that Jesse Clark tackles head-on in his latest photography series “Everglow,” which opens September 1 at Sarasota Center for the Arts. The issues Clark faces in these images would be a challenge for a seasoned photographer. But Clark is a third-year student majoring in photography and imaging at Ringling College of Art and Design. Based on this series, he learned his lessons well.

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The photographs are primarily staged vignettes of young African American men. Don’t think of Jaden Smith or Donald Glover. Clark’s figures are dressed in pinks and pastels, and often adorned with flowers. They are the antithesis of the black tough guys who dominate film and television. That’s Clark’s intention.

Essentially, this series is his refutation of mass media stereotypes.

“Movies and TV often present a very narrow view of African American men,” Clark said in an interview. “Black men are usually depicted as super-aggressive. It could be a football sportsman, a gangster or even a criminal. My series deconstructs this cliché. I portray the black male figure of a gentle and humanizing way. Instead of guns and violence, I use the flower – which symbolically represents gentleness and beauty.

Ringling College student Jesse Clark explores a view of optimism in black communities in his photo exhibit

It seems vague and abstract. Clark’s actual photographs are crystal clear. His staged vignettes have a crisp hyper-reality. His characters are larger than life, in a Technicolor world of saturated color.

“Everglow” is the iconic photograph that gave the series its title. A young black man with his eyes closed is daydreaming or lost in thought surrounded by a field of pastel flowers. Her orange pants and blue sweater echo the floral hues that surround her. The colors resonate like sympathetic chords of visual music.

“David” is an intentional echo of “David” by Michelangelo and also a sneaky mirror image. It’s a low angle shot of a young black man in a yellow tank top. Where David’s left hand held a slingshot, this figure’s right hand is empty. He stands in front of a yellow house against an incredibly blue sky. There is no Goliath in sight.

There's a sly reference to Michelangelo's famous statue in the photo of

“Hero” depicts a young black man wearing a reflective metal helmet that hides his face. His posture is that of a warrior. But a typical warrior’s helmet has a crest symbolizing conquest and domination. This helmet has a crest of flowers. A symbol of life, not death.

Clark’s action figures have aesthetic appeal and no trace of aggression.

“These photographs put African-American identity in a new light,” Clark says. “What does it mean to be a black man? I show that there are many different correct answers. Hard? It’s a response we’re used to. But a black man can also be a sweet, loving, and handsome person.

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Clark’s artistic intention is very clear: to create change in the world by changing perceptions in the mind of the viewer. It is an ambitious goal. According to Clark, this was one of his main lessons at Ringling College.

“Initially, all I wanted to do was take great pictures,” he says. “And that’s what I did in high school. Then, during my second year at Ringling, a professor asked me, “What does your job mean?” This question prompted me to start using photography as a tool for change.

Clark’s art had a new purpose. But his artistic talent has always been strong.

The picture

Thomas Carabasi, Clark’s professor and head of the photography and imaging department at Ringling College, describes him as a gifted student and a quick learner.

“Jesse quickly acquired a technical grasp of lighting, lenses and the fundamentals of shooting,” says Carabasi. “He then moved on to a very difficult subject. Specifically, it deals with the meaning of black identity. It has a fresh and contemporary approach, and it’s very relevant for this historical moment.

“Through Dark Eyes” was Clark’s first walk on the soft side. His first series of staged photographs uses a small circle of his friends and comrades as models. Instead of directing them, he guided them in a process of collaboration. He used the same process in his last series.

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Clark’s expressive language is also influenced by dance. Movement was Clark’s first creative medium. As a child, he had studied ballet, tap and other forms of dance. He turned to the visual arts while studying at the Harrison School for the Arts in Lakeland. But he applied the gestures he had learned to his new medium.

“Gesture is one of the most important things in my photography,” he says. “I draw inspiration from my ballet experience, its vocabulary of soft and straight movements.”

Clark is also inspired by the work of photographer Tyler Mitchell, painter Kehinde Wiley, and other contemporary black artists.

Raw talent, creative vision and artistic influences.

All of this makes for great images.

Clark is adamant that this beauty is not a denial of the struggles of the black community. He knows from personal experience that the life of a gifted young black man isn’t always a pretty picture. He was born in Haiti and adopted by a white family in 2003. At home, his parents’ love was unconditional. Outside of family, Clark experienced his share of rejection from white people who saw him as a threat. He knows reality can be ugly for black people. But this is not the only reality.

Jesse Clark's photo

“My art is only one aspect of the whole,” he says. “I am fully aware that African Americans today have to deal with brutality, violence, stereotyping, and structural and personal racism. I do not deny these struggles. But I don’t want the future of the black experience to be totally defined and limited by them. There is more to black identity worth sharing.

Enlightenment is Clark’s antidote to ignorance, which applies to both self-image and the perception of others.

Kinsey Robb, Executive Director of the Sarasota Art Center said she was deeply impressed by the power of Clark’s photography and his liberating spirit.

“‘Everglow’ is such a happy word,” she says. “It’s a playful combination of ‘ever’ and ‘glow’ and it evokes a feeling of constant illumination and beauty. It really shines through in Jesse’s work. There is so much negativity today, an attraction to the dark side. Jesse sees this darkness. But he wants us to see that the darkness has not conquered the light.

Let’s say the light wins. What should a young black person do?

According to Clark, just be yourself.

“Other people will try to tell you who you are – or who you’re supposed to be. Don’t let anyone put you in a box. You are the expert of who you are. No one knows you better than yourself.

Clark’s work is one of four new shows running concurrently to open a new season at the Art Center Sarasota. Opening exhibits also include Alissa Silvers’ “Live in Color”; “I Am the Clay,” an all-ceramic exhibit featuring 16 local artists curated by Carla O’Brien; and “Pop!” a show-competition inspired by the Pop Art movement.

‘Everglow’

September 1-30, at the Art Center Sarasota, 707 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. The artist will talk about his work at 5:30 p.m. on September 15. (941) 365-2032; artsarasota.org ­­­

Read more visual arts stories by Marty Fugate.

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