Willie Birch integrates world of cultures in ‘Somebody’s Child’

Beneath its sheer size and ruddy exterior, the unconventional MASS MoCA itself is a study in open spaces and the inventive use of natural wood, brick and metal surfaces. Before heading to Willie Birch’s “Somebody’s Child” exhibition in the Kidspace wing of the museum, I happened upon an exhibition entitled “Maya” by American artist Jarvis Rockwell, the oldest son of American painter Norman Rockwell. He had constructed a breathtaking nine-foot high, stepped pyramid, every inch of which had been covered with plastic action figurines, including those of Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Coneheads and even Trolls, complete with neon green hair.

In an adjacent room, Rockwell used action figures to construct smaller scenes, including one of Ewoks at a punch bowl party. After leaving, I proceeded to one of MASS MoCA’s largest galleries (roughly the size of a football field), and passed through Robert Wilson’s “14 Stations,” an enormous installation depicting, in a rather abstract fashion, Jesus’s final days on Earth. Entering through Station One, a pavilion with a low ceiling and many bare light bulbs hanging down very close to the floor, visitors then proceed onto a long wooden walkway, bordered on each side by gravel and 12 small houses, each with a tiny window. Inside each house, you can see images and hear sounds that relate to different events in Jesus’s last days.

Several themes persist throughout the installation, including boulders representing the weight of the cross and the repeated use of Shaker furniture. For instance, at Station Four, Jesus’s meeting of Mother Mary is symbolized by two small abstract figures facing one another, over which hang a large boulder pierced by an illuminated pipe. At the end of the walkway, the viewer comes to the final station representing the resurrection, where a large white human figure is suspended upside down in an apse of trees over a blue bed. While I had trouble connecting the religious elements to the images at each of the stations, the installation itself was carefully and beautifully constructed, and should be sampled just for the experience.

When I finally found my way to Kidspace – MASS MoCA is a pretty big place – the more concrete and accessible works of painter Willie Birch were a welcome reprieve from the more bizarre and cerebral works found in the rest of the musuem. A bright room on the third floor of the building, Kidspace provided an intimate setting in which to display Birch’s 13 works, all of them acrylic paint and charcoal on paper.

The works depict different aspects of life in New Orleans, where Birch was born and raised. He studied art at Southern University in New Orleans, and received his M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1973. After graduating, he moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived for over 20 years, before returning to New Orleans, where he currently resides and works. While in graduate school, Birch was influenced by abstraction and color field painting, but during a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, he began to study different forms of American folk art and outsider art.

He also studied different forms of art from around the world, including that of African and American Indian cultures. The works are rather large, ranging from 32 by 36.5 inches to 72 by 78 inches, but all of them were based on small snapshots that Birch took. The photos themselves seem rather ordinary, but Birch’s process of reproducing them on a much larger scale brings to them a vitality and energy that aren’t initially apparent.

In “Watching the Parade Go By,” each person’s expression is interesting and gives the viewer a sense of how each person is important in their own right. This is also a great example of a painting showcasing Birch’s juxtaposition of hard outlines and subtle shading. The lines draw attention to geometric patterns and clearly defined shapes at the borders of each figure, while the shading is used to show subtle variances in skin tone and lighting.

Although most of Birch’s works in the exhibit are in black and white, he employs color to great effect in a few of his works – most notably in “Boy with Blue Hair II.” The electric blue hair grabs your attention, drawing you to closer examine the subject of the painting. Birch also features hairstyles in another one of his paintings, “Three Females with Doo’s,” as three young Prom-ready ladies look at the viewer in quiet contemplation.

Birch’s exhibit, although lacking in the grand scale of Wilson’s “14 Stations” or the tongue-in-cheek humor of Rockwell’s art, wonderfully complements the rest of the art in MASS MoCA through its simplicity and honesty. It is well worth sampling on your way through the museum, as it is a wonderful antidote to anyone’s misconceptions of modern art.