The Charles Evans Inniss Memorial Library
at Medgar Evers College
The Charles Evans Inniss Memorial Library at Medgar Evers College (MEC) presents The Students: A Study of Color and Light works by Donovan Nelson. This is the inaugural in a 5-year series of exhibitions designed to present contemporary art in a historical context, and a continuation of MEC’s commitment to providing a platform for the consideration and study of art. The exhibition will be on view until October 6, 2017.
Completed 17 years ago, over a period of 5 days, the 35 portraits in this series were created from life at the very beginning of Donovan Nelson’s teaching career. With the exception of the one self-portrait, the subjects are Nelson’s former students, and the setting is a high school classroom in the East New York section of Brooklyn, New York.
The series was first conceived as a demonstration for an assignment that required each student to create his or her own portrait. Nelson decided to utilized portraiture as a teaching mechanism, for his students and himself, to resolve the difficulties in properly rendering color and light from direct observation. The resulting works raise many questions including, how might the ease or difficultly of access to a particular teaching style affect how young people learn, and how can access to art change our perception of ourselves?
The works bear witness to Nelson’s attempt to reach his students, and his progress as a portrait artist. As the works are viewed in succession, we see Nelson move from depicting the color appearance revealed in the soft glow of natural light, to recording the presence of artificial light; and, the stark contrast it creates in the range of colors that comprise the skin tones of his subjects.
The eureka moment is revealed in Student #11 as the spectrum of colors in the skin become the subject, in the absence of a recognizable face. According to Nelson, it was his former instructor Nelson Shanks, the first American artist to paint the Pope, who at the time the works were created told him “Don’t paint the skin, paint the color of the light.” Similar to the Migration of the Negro series by Jacob Lawrence and Chris Ofili’s Afro Muses, this series was created at a pivotal moment in Nelson’s career and marks the evolution of his studio practice.
Donovan Nelson was born in 1969 in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1994, he received a B.F.A. in illustration from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Nelson also studied portraiture and figure painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts. In 1996, he received a M.F.A. in painting from the New York Academy of Art. Nelson has devoted the majority of his practice to rendering the likeness, personality, and the real or perceived status of the person through portraiture. Among his notable commissions are Reverend Floyd Flake, Edison O. Jackson, the former president of MEC, and Brooklyn’s first black state Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Williams.
The works in this exhibition are on loan from the Valentine Museum of Art’s (VMOA) permanent collection. VMOA’s collecting strategy is primarily geared toward thematically based bodies of work created by contemporary artists.
Ivy N. Jones