"Good Night Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning:" Marcus Brutus Channels Alice Walker @ Library Street Collective
There are few artists who capture historical intimacy quite like Marcus Brutus. Everytime I see his work, I feel like I'm delving into the mind of a voracious reader, someone who is in the process of understanding the great art before him and interpreting it into his own unique voice and visual aesthetic. After speaking with him on the Radio Juxtapoz podcast a few months ago, which you can listen to below, and now seeing this new body of work for Library Street Collective, he continues to emerge as one of the great emerging American painters of the moment, depicting everyday life and distant memories like a timeless observer. —Evan Pricco
Library Street Collective is pleased to present Good Night Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning, a solo exhibition of new works by New York-based artist Marcus Brutus. Taking its title from a 1975 poem by writer and activist Alice Walker, the paintings are inspired by Walker’s exploration of dysfunctional relationships and the belief that through forgiveness one finds redemption in both life and death.
Says Brutus, “I found this poem to align with my experience and attitude during quarantine because initially, I spent my time overwhelmed with nostalgic memories of life pre-covid. It wasn’t until I accepted that the world is in a unique period - and to focus on the things that I could control - that I began to experience a sense of freedom and relief.” The artist’s liberation is embodied in the painting Evolution (And Flashback), where three women dance in front of a ‘Free Huey’ flag in a celebratory scene layered with fluorescent confetti. The ‘Free Huey’ campaign was implemented by the Black Panther Party in support of co-founder Huey Newton after he was arrested for the 1968 shooting death of a police officer. Newton maintained his innocence and the phrase ‘Free Huey!’ was adopted as a rallying cry for the movement, printed on buttons, t-shirts, and posters across the country during the 2 year period that it took to overturn Newton’s charges. In this spirit of redemption and legacy, Evolution (And Flashback) became the catalyst for all of the works within the exhibition, “depicting everyday scenes in black life with both overt and undertone references to black history.”
Brutus is the son of Haitian immigrants to America, and the estrangement he feels within his home country has inspired in him the ability to identify these feelings in others, tracing them back through real and imagined histories. Mirroring his own absolution from trauma, the figures within the exhibition works face physical and emotional adversity and yet are set against halcyonic backgrounds in bright rainbows and yellows, pinks, and greens. The work Erzulie presents a woman in a pink arm cast with her baby and is named after the Haitian Vodou Lwa (spirit or Goddess) of love and women. Manifesting in the New World during slavery, Erzulie is a Goddess of love who evolved at a time when slave owners broke up families and separated husbands and wives at will, and raped female slaves as a practice to bear more. Erzulie manifests deep passion, and Her moods can range from the height of joy to the depths of misery - when She possesses a follower in ceremony, the overtaken will move between seductive and wistful, ultimately weeping for the limitations of love.
Heaven Right Here on Earth depicts a woman and puppies in front of the welcome sign to Soul City, North Carolina. Conceived by Civil Rights activist Floyd B. McKissick, Soul City was built in the early 1970s with funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Nixon Administration and was intended to provide a new place of opportunity for minorities and the poor. With the HUD funding, McKissick built a state-of-the-art water system, a health care clinic, and a massive steel-and-glass factory named Soultech I. Just as residents began to settle in Soul City, Senator Jesse Helms demanded an audit of the project in 1975, halting development and discouraging population growth. The federal government eventually cleared the program of any malpractice, but the damage was already done; today, only a few hundred people reside in Soul City though McKissick had dreams of 50,000 or more.
Notably, Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning is the last piece presented in Walker’s third collection of poetry, becoming the final word in a volume that explores the connections between love relationships and lasting change. The volume is divided into five sections moving from a night of loss to a morning of hope, and the title poem - the essential statement that is made to Willie Lee’s body - is one of supreme acceptance of his death, but also of his life with all its flaws. As paralleled in Brutus’ collection of works, this sentiment of acceptance in life does not mean the absolution of action for movement forward, but rather inspires a clear mind to pursue the long journey ahead.
Read our feature with Marcus Brutus from the Spring 2020 Quarterly.